Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind Hardcover – Jun 19 2012
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Amazon.ca - Best 100 Books of 2012
“With many fascinating anecdotes up his sleeve, Stone conjures an entertaining book.”
“Stone's engaging journey into his amateur magic career is as enlightening as it is disturbing. Not only does he reveal closely guarded secrets hoarded, in some cases, for thousands of years but he tears open the psyche of the archetypal magician. It mirrors too closely the geekiness, brilliance and single-mindedness illusionists seek to hide, even from themselves.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“If you're not that interested in the secretive world of magic, just disappear. But if you're fascinated by odd little corners of society, Fooling Houdini is not only informative, but highly entertaining. Stone has pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.”
“An eye-opening, irresistible journey into the world of magic. Stone has written a masterful story that is bursting with energy, inventiveness, and a sense of wonder on every page. I don't even like magic, but I couldn't put Fooling Houdini down!”
—Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics
“An enthralling journey into the inner world of magic. Alex Stone writes with a winning voice that you’ll want to follow anywhere.”
—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein
“Fooling Houdini is a totally smart and engrossing study of one of America’s most misunderstood sub-cultures.”
—John Hodgman, author of That Is All
“What I loved most about Fooling Houdini is the world it takes us into: these huddled cliques of obsessed magicians reinventing their art. . . . This book makes you want to do magic tricks, and convinces you just how hard it is to do them well.”
—Ira Glass, host of This American Life
“The story of Fooling Houdini is simply wonderful—as good as a novel, I think—and yet all true. . . . Stone is an engaging writer, but he wisely spends his energy, not on trying to dazzle us with his writing, but telling us the truth as clearly as possible.”
—Orson Scott Card for Rhino Times
“Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini is a delight. . . . He writes with wit and scientific sharpness and grand humor. He immerses us in a fascinating world few have ever entered.”
—Buzz Bissinger, author Friday Night Lights
From the Back Cover
When Alex Stone was five years old, his father bought him a magic kit. Years later, in New York City, he plunged headlong into a vibrant underground magic scene populated by a fascinating cast of characters: from his gruff mentor, who holds court in a rundown pizza shop, to one of the world's greatest card cheats, who also happens to be blind. As he navigates this quirky and occasionally hilarious subculture, Stone pulls back the curtain on a secretive community organized around a single need: to prove one's worth by deceiving others. In trying to understand how magic fools us, Stone uncovers a wealth of insights into human nature and the nature of perception. Through his investigation of the lesser-known corners of psychology, neuroscience, history, mathematics, and even crime, all through the lens of trickery and illusion, Fooling Houdini arrives at a host of startling revelations about how the mind works—and why, sometimes, it doesn't.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
He delves into the ethics, physics, and psychology of a discipline that appears a lot more shallow on the surface, but the reader is made familiar with the other facets very quickly.
It is not a tale of success, but of the pursuit of deeper understanding, and through that pursuit, the reader meets not only the victories but also the challenges.
Magicians taking up entrenchments about whether the author is a hack seem to ignore that he makes no grandiose claims of being a virtuoso, but seems to detail his failures, insecurities, and anxieties throughout. If anything, the book is a disclaimer about going into magic with lack of focus or dedication.
Great read for a layperson curious about magic but not necessarily interested in abandoning their life for it.
The book is full of factual errors and misleading claims. Most of the people claims as experts aren't. The author is on a mission to convince himself (and unfortunately the reader) that magic is easy and anyone can become an expert once you learn a few secrets.
While some might argue that it's nice to read about the trials and tribulations of a mediocre practitioner who doesn't manage to achieve his goals, most of us have better uses for our time.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Stone starts off the book by telling the tale of his attempt to win honor and glory at the Magic Olympics (the pinnacle of magic competitions) and the various changes in his personal life that, along with a lifelong infatuation with magic (blame his father) eventually led him to all but abandon his "normal" life and pursue a strange and somewhat obsessed journey to the center of the magic mind. Along the way he spends time with some of the great legends of magic (a lot of them regularly hanging out in a pizza joint in NYC on Saturday afternoons), a handful of grifters, three-card monte ne'er-do-wells, a stellar and legally blind card mechanic (Richard Turner--whose abilities are legendary and will absolutely challenge your thoughts about blindness) and psychologists. Each of these characters helps add to his growing understanding of just how much the person being fooled is as much a part of the fooling as the magician.
Stone has a terrific writing style (I write for a living myself and I'm in awe of his easy and fun writing skill) and while the book drags a tiny bit here and there, I kept turning the pages to see what happened next. The book reads like a kind of Hunter S. Thompson road trip that, not coincidentally, involves quite a bit of time spent in Las Vegas. At one point you'll read how the author is ousted from his beloved magic community (and you'll learn just how inbred and dark that odd little world can be) and quite nearly has his life threatened for revealing some of the secrets of magic in a magazine article. You'll also learn why revealing things about how magic tricks work seems to only foster more fascination with magic--not less. (And personally, I've had magicians show me the rudiments of some card tricks and five minutes later I forget what they've told me and only remember being fooled.) And you'll learn just how easy it is to steal someone's watch right off of their wrist.
My only criticism (very mild) of the book is that Stone mentions many psychological research studies and similar background information without actually citing them by name, year, etc. The book would have more authority if he included citations. In other words, I think the book could have used a lot of footnotes that were not included. It's boring to read a book that is full of of footnotes and this is more a journey of personal discovery than a scientific overview, of course, but I still would have liked a few pages at the end that listed the various studies so that I could have read more about them.
As I said, Stone is a very gifted writer with a very colorful and fun writing style and he exposes a lot of the weaknesses of his own personality (only a very confident nonfiction writer will do that so readily) and this is a terrifically fun book. Even if you have never wondered much about magic or illusions, you'll never watch a magic act with the same innocent eyes again. And one thing is for certain: if you read this book you'll never lose a cent at three-card monte (and you'll keep your eye on your wristwatch any time you're near a magician).
Stone makes the reader like him right away, as he describes the embarrassment of completely failing a competition. From there, we see him rebound as he comes back to the magic world, while pursuing an advanced degree at Columbia, and dedicate himself to improving his magic skills. He's able to describe different tricks to us without giving away secrets and impress up on the reader just how difficult it can be to learn some of these tricks. Stone also describes some of the ways that magicians use their skills in the business world, such as the magician who is almost entirely blind but whose sense of touch is so highly developed that he works as a "touch consultant" for a major card company.
More than just describing magic tricks, however, Stone also writes about how the human brain/psychology works and can be manipulated. We see how con games are so successful and why people are fascinated by magic. Additionally, Stone's writing style is excellent - the book is perfectly paced and the personal stories are woven in wonderfully with the history and technical descriptions. Highly recommended for just about anybody.
The title, "Fooling Houdini" comes from an anecdote about Dai Vernon, who managed to fool Houdini eight times with a trick called The Ambitious Card. Now the trick is standard, and every magician has their own personalized version of it.
Stone writes with clarity, drawing connections between magic, psychology, neuroscience and even economics, arguing that the greatest eras of innovation in magic tricks were the eras when the tricks were regularly exposed, forcing the constant invention of new tricks and sparking clever variations from other magicians once they knew the secrets.
WHO THE BOOK IS FOR:
Anyone interested in the backstage world of magic, their societies and the secret clavens within those societies. Magician's magicians. People who are interested in the intersection of science and the techniques of magicians.
WHO THE BOOK IS NOT FOR:
People who already know everything there is to know about magic, or who feel they enjoy magic the less they know about the art. People hoping to learn specific tricks.
I enjoyed it all the way through. Stone draws back the curtain on the magic world, revealing colorful characters and throwing in anecdotes from the history of conjuring as well as related scientific research. Highly recommended.
The book is a little bit of all of those things, but not in a satisfying way. An early chapter starts off with an interesting scenario (the author is taking a "master class" in magic) and devolves into an excruciatingly detailed and boring description of the house, the teacher and the fellow students, none of whom you will ever encounter again. By the time the description is done, so is the chapter. At one point the author promises to tell us about a trip to Vegas. I thought "Now it should get good." No luck, three pages later the trip was over and done and nothing much happened.
The author specializes in close-up magic, which uses cards, coins, cups, ropes and is done, as the author puts it, "right under your nose." The book therefore focuses on this genre, and there is comparatively little time spent on stage magic. If you are looking for backstage gossip or interesting facts about stage magicians, famous or otherwise, there's not much of it.
There is more than you'll ever need to know on scams, specifically three card monte and the shell game. If you're like most people, you've heard of these and know basically how they work. The author also mentioned something called the "fast and loose" which I had never heard of. I was looking forward to an explanation, but the author merely said it "survives only in print." I had to Google the term to find out any more about it.
The author spent some time, as basically an onlooker, with an professor involved in research on human cognition. What you get, sprinkled throughout the book, is an overview of the field from the point of view of an amateur. If you've read any books by Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker, you've read most of this, better and more entertainingly told by a true expert.
In summary, the book was not terrible, but it was ultimately disappointing. I had hoped to devour every word, but found myself skimming chapters quite often.
I enjoyed the story telling. I wish he had written more about science, mathematics, and physics. The marriage of science and magic is a driving force in this book. I hoped for more stories about this marriage, especially the pyschology of "misdirection." Thank you Alex Stone for sharing your story.