This list of magic theory books and DVDs was put up on Ye Olde Magick Blogge about seven years ago during the 365-day blogging project. I think the information here is still pretty good…? I’m having a tough time thinking about major works since then that ought to be included, but if somebody’s got something, shoot me an email.
Here’s a quick run-down of the bigger theory texts out there…
Day 268: Books
Tommy Wonder’s Books of Wonder: Focused on presentation and construction. This two-volume set contains so much of the great thought from Tommy Wonder, who was a true triple-threat (performer, creator, theorist). The ideas about conflict, misdirection, structure, the mind movie, simplicity, the community, tension and relaxation, the Too-Perfect Theory… all of these are well worth reading. And, thankfully, a lot of his magic has been included, so you can see how the theory actually works in terms of routines. A great set.
Ken Weber’s Maximum Entertainment: Focused on presentation. It’s good in the sense that he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to attacking the shortcomings in terms of performance for some of the guys we idolize in the community, but I found it a bit too indulgent in cherry-picking less-than-stellar L&L performances, and I think he really missed the boat when criticizing one of Ortiz’s theories in Strong Magic related to a Juan Tamariz concept, but whatever. It’s always good to have cold water thrown on one’s face to dispel our illusions, but boldness and daring on that front don’t necessarily automatically make for a better book.
Henning Nelms’s Magic and Showmanship: Focused on presentation. One of the more easily-acquired texts devoted to theory out there, and as such perhaps a bit over-praised. Many of the tricks in there, while clever, exist really as case studies to offer a theoretical point, which is one way to go about it, but just as valuable is to look at routines that have been proven strong and use them as case studies. That said, looking at tricks as having claims that require appropriate proofs is very noteworthy.
Juan Tamariz’s The Magic Way: Focused on construction. In my mind one of the most important texts we’ve got, although perhaps less so for its content and more for the practices it attempts to instill into the reader. Taking the Nelms concept of proofs to its philosophical extreme is at least worth considering as an academic exercise, if not as a personal ethos of routine construction. In my mind, though, if part of your philosophy as a magician is that you don’t want them to know how you did it, this book is so important. Tamariz, please reprint the damn thing!
Juan Tamariz’s Five Points of Magic: Focused on tangibilities of presentation. He talks about certain nitty-gritty things in a way that I suspect makes it a primer for traditional theatrical concepts (body positioning, eye contact, etc.). In the long run I think this book will eventually be eclipsed by a proper drama expert (meaning, somebody that theatrical directors and actors would consider an expert) coming in and figuring out what we need, but for right now, there’s good stuff in there.
Darwin Ortiz’s Designing Miracles: A very good book that’s about routine construction. It attempts to figure out some specific principles that make for deceptive tricks, and introduces some important terms and principles (external vs. internal reality, the critical interval, the breaking of causalities, etc.) for any serious student of magic theory.
Darwin Ortiz’s Strong Magic: Focused on presentation. Love this book, even though I hate a couple of the arguments presented in there (the Spielberg one and the challenge one being the two bigger things that bugged me). There’s a breadth here that exposes an attempt at covering everything to do with magic presentation, and while that may never be possible, I love him for making that attempt. A monster of a book.
Derren Brown’s Absolute Magic: Focused on presentation. Another monster of a book, and totally worth reading if only for the concept of understanding that people can be just as compelled by what causes the magic as they are by the magic itself. Brown’s foray into mentalism is a real loss for magicians, because who knows what would have happened if he’d taken these ideas and applied them to traditional magic. Like Ortiz, he wanted to try to hit one out of the park, to the extent of in the conclusion trying to define magic’s place amongst the High Arts.
Gary Kurtz’s Leading With Your Head: Focused on misdirection. A great text on the subject, that seeks to define a lot of the core principles and dynamics that can make misdirection work. Great ideas in here.
Eric Evans’s and Nowlin Craver’s The Secret Art of Magic: A very exotic and off-beat approach to coming up with an all-encompassing theory on magic deception. Certainly worth reading if you’re a die-hard fan of magic theory, although perhaps a bit much if your interest in the topic is only passing.
David Kaye’s Seriously Silly: Focused on presentation. Love this book, and it contains a lot of principles that can make for comedic magic at any level. Richard Kaufman called it the finest book on magic presentation out there, and while I’m not sure most would agree, it’s certainly my favourite, and I’d make an argument for it being in the top five. Not bad for a kid’s magician.
Eugene Burger’s books. Rather than list a whole bunch of titles I’m just going to recommend all of them, because all of his books (and DVDs, for that matter) include some theoretical concepts in them, usually amid routines that demonstrate the concepts in question. Likely of more interest to those studying magic presentation than anything.
Robert Neale’s The Magic Mirror: Focused on presentation. Lots of very interesting ideas in here, the most important of which is the idea of using magic to tap into truly universal themes, rather than just the ones that usually get trotted out by magicians. Eugene Burger may be the best model for how to do this competently (and your local magic club and the Magic Cafe will provide many examples of “bizarrists” who do it incompetently), but the seeds for duplicating success are in there. In the long run, I think that that success in this endevour relies on artistic aptitude in either poetry or literature (or both), but insofar as those forms can potentially mesh well with magic, Neale’s book here offers a lot of good ideas.
Arturo Ascanio, The Magic of Ascanio Book Vol. 1: If there’s one major regret I have about this “theory month” it’s that this man’s ideas aren’t getting more representation here. Truth be told, I’ve only read it through once, and I feel I couldn’t do it proper justice without another complete re-read. If you hear people talking about in-transit actions or the parenthesis of forgetfulness, this is the place to read more about it. It’s a collection of essays and interviews, based almost completely on theory, with that tinge of romantic insanity that Spanish artists seem to tap into so well.
Al Schneider’s Al Schneider Magic: Haven’t yet had a chance to read this. Desperately want to, given the quality of his other work. Still, can’t personally recommend what I haven’t yet personally digested.
Jamy Ian Swiss’s Shattering Illusions: Only read it once, so don’t take this as a proper review. My first impression was that he falls into the same excesses that Ken Weber does — there’s a lot of novel appeal in being told that everything we’re doing is wrong (and why). That said, whereas Darwin Ortiz also indulges in the practice, Ortiz also works really hard to offer solutions and ways out.
Dariel Fitzkee’s Fitzkee Trilogy: Focused on presentation and construction. Comprised of three books — Showmanship for Magicians, Magic by Misdirection, and The Trick Brain, this set has been highly-praised, and while I think it’s worth reading just to get a sense of what was avant garde for the time, we’ve gotten a bit more sophisticated. Fun to see the pendulum swing the other way when Ortiz talks about the “Fitzkee Fallacy”.
Whit Haydn’s possible upcoming book. It’s colossally irresponsible to recommend anything that hasn’t even been produced yet, but if Haydn’s existing contributions to magic theory on the Magic Cafe are any indication, then it’ll be dynamite. In fact, if you’re looking for great thoughts along these lines, simply go hunt down the stuff he writes about on the Magic Cafe, and be ready for a lot of provoked thought.
Maskelyne and Devant’s Our Magic: I need to give it another read before I can comment on it. Highly recommended by a few (including Haydn).
Day 269: DVDs
Eugene Burger’s DVDs: The obvious choice for this one would be Exploring Magical Presentations, but I actually believe that, like his books, all his DVDs actually contain some great ideas, and for what EMP attempts to provide in a dedicated exercise, the three Magical Voyages volumes actually offer in proper case studies. The big challenge here with regards to studying him will be to divorce Burger’s work as a stylist to his ideas. His thoughts on texture, having the magic show express something about you, etc. are so important and yet continually unheeded by professional magicians.
Al Schneider’s Al Schneider Technique, Volume 1: This DVD is almost exclusively about theory, introducing concepts like Rewind Theory, as well as his take of conditioning, assumptions, presentation, motivation, etc. Tricks generally serve as case studies here. There’s no live audience, and so it might be a bit rich even for a dedicated student to absorb in one sitting. That said, if you watch the other three volumes, you’ll see some great magic there, so if you want to know the thinking behind them, volume 1 is indispensable.
John Carney’s On Palming and Carney on Ramsay: Focused on technique and structure. Both these DVDs are well worth looking at to see how a magician goes about taking extant sleights and constructions and refining them. Misdirection as a tool is given lots of focus in the CoR DVD, and while I think his work has been arguably improved upon by Tyler Erickson’s work in the study of the False Transfer, it’s still very enlightening on its own. On Palming also has a lot of great work on there (punctuation and retreating, for instance), but the DVD lacks routines that demonstrate the sleights in context. You’ll want to purchase some of those to see how all that stuff works together.
Andrew Galloway’s Magic of John Ramsay: Ramsay was a real pioneer in the way he went about misdirection and feints, and as such a comprehensive look into his work by his most famous student is worthy of consideration. The DVD marketing copy states that the talks at the end of the DVDs involving misdirection and related topics are worth the price of the DVD alone, but that’s pure marketing hype. The content there is a good primer, but it could have just as easily been put into a five-page booklet. The real value to be taken away from the DVDs is studying the routines to say how you can construct the magic to have inherent misdirectional dynamics in play.
Tommy Wonder’s Visions of Wonder DVDs: Focused on presentation and construction. Indispensable as a way of seeing just how effective the ideas in his books are. Plus, some great magic.
David Roth’s DVDs. Focused on technique and construction. Despite the emphasis on individual tricks, there are some ideas that Roth attempts to hammer home on his DVDs, namely routine construction and the importance of the “magic wand” (either as a proper wand or else through a substitute). His efforts to constantly invoke these principles, and to offer examples that make use of them, lifts it above the realm of a grab-bag of tricks.
Dai Vernon’s Revelations: A colossal set of DVDs that includes so many different things, going from history to technique to routines to theory. The format is a bit nebulous at times, so you’ll have to watch it pretty much sequentially to sift out the important ideas, but there’s great stuff in there on naturalness, showmanship, motivation, etc.