Book Review: “How Magicians Think”

Terri Schlichenmeyer leaves her review of “How Magicians Think” by Joshua Jay.

Take a card. Any card.

Don’t show it to anyone. Look at it, quickly, and put it back in the package anywhere randomly. Now think about this card. Think about the number, the costume, the number of symbols on it, the color, the shape. Concentrate intensely on the card you have chosen, then ask yourself – as in the new book “How Magicians Think” by Josuha Jay – what the magician is focusing on.

How did he do that?

If you’re like most people, this is your first reaction when you overhear an act of magic: how did the person with the tricks manage to trick you, right in front of you? This question, says Joshua Jay, is the wrong “mindset”.

“Magic tricks aren’t riddles,” he says, “but most of us see them that way.”

Still, it’s natural for you to wonder about Jay’s world.

Being a magician, for example, seems like a glamorous life, but Jay says touring means he misses birthdays, holidays and “all the important stuff”. He trains constantly and because his hands are essential to his job, he has given up hobbies he previously enjoyed in order to avoid possible injury. Jay says he’s traveled all over the world to perform and to watch others perform – he says magic is practiced differently in every country – and he’s been to the famous Magic Castle. He’s invented a number of tricks that he knows can be teased by other magicians, but he’s not worried because “magic has a strict code of ethics”.

If you like being surprised and you like the show, good for you, he says. Magicians work hard to keep the illusion alive, and if you want to too, then listen up: a magician’s words are very important distractions, but they can also spoil the trick. Never watch the same show twice and never try too hard to find the secret.

“When nothing is left to the imagination,” says Jay, “there is nothing left to imagine.”

On our most cutesy days, we sometimes like to think romantically that we’ve managed to maintain a child’s innocence. It’s not good, from a magician’s point of view, says author Joshua Jay; in fact, children are the most difficult customers to deceive.

So that thing behind the ear you were planning to do on Thanksgiving? Throw it away and read “How Magicians Think” instead. Here, Jay explains why even the most jaded among us need magic these days, and how today’s magic has gone beyond tired tropes to become the big-stage attraction it is, although some of them are larger than life and often dangerous.

In this, he assures readers that what they are seeing is real.

But how can this be? Jay (no relation to Ricky Jay) doesn’t say. What you read in this book – including its list of favorites and its interpretation and creation stories – won’t spoil the illusion for you. You can enjoy “How Magicians Think”, you can walk around a trick, shake your head and still be impressed. Actually, the fear of the loose jaw… yeah, it’s in the cards.

“How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters” by Joshua Jay

c.2021, Workman $27.50 / more in Canada 310 pages

Author Joshua Jay.

Brian L. Hartfield