I already own all of Mr. Steinmeyer’s previous works, but confess to really only having enjoyed the close-up, stand-up, anecdotal and historical entries.  The box tricks?  No thanks.  I don’t really consider myself a snob in this area, just uninformed and largely uninterested.  Perhaps it’s that no illusionist I’ve seen (save for Copperfield), and I’ve seen most of the living heavyweights, has captured my attention.  Maybe this is due to a lack of an engaging presentation or dramatic structure.  Who knows?  “Yes, Zig Zag looks good, but where’s the skill?  What’s at risk?  Who cares?”

It turns out, according to Mr. Steinmeyer, the skill begins in the birth of the idea, the emerging concept, the initial design, the trials, the errors, the experiments, the adjustments.  The years.

Ahhh, now it’s getting interesting after all…

I wanted to call this review “Jim Steinmeyer’s Technique & Understanding and Why You Should Care”,

or,

“How I learned to stop worrying and love illusions.”

Although I’ve studied magic seriously for over thirty years, I’m not a stage magician.  I’ve never been into illusions, and although I’ve purchased all of Mr. Steinmeyer’s other books, I’ve done so as a magic collector, a bibliophile, an appreciator of elegant ideas, and as a sucker for anything “exclusive”.  I love having access to specialized knowledge in many forms, and magic hold a special place in my heart.

I also knew upon release that this book would be an instant classic.  It just has that feel.  It’s a nice, oversize hardcover with 300 pages, 200 illustrations, a luxurious blue cloth cover and nice, quality paper.  Plus, it’s by one of the undisputed geniuses of our craft.  And with a price of  $135, it’s gotta be great, right?

Yeah.  It is.

The book includes four lectures on stage magic, eight stand-up routines with full patter, and sixteen illusions.   And would you believe that there are even principals within these pages that can actually improve your close-up magic?

Believe it.

Many of us own some of the classics of magic (Greater Magic, Tarbell Course, Showmanship for Magicians, Our Magic), but when was the last time you actually sat down to read it – if ever?  When I purchased this book I initially thought it would go on the shelf next to all the others and I’d get around to it eventually.  And, like so often happens, months (or even years) might pass before I take advantage of its fruits.  I know I’m not alone in this behavior.

But some books just demand to be read.  Usually they’re the great ones.  My friend Greg Arce makes it a point to reread certain tomes once a year without fail, knowing that as he ages and gains more knowledge, the lessons gleaned from within those pages will multiply and evolve and reap more rewards.

This is one of those books.  I’m certain that when I reread it twenty years from now (heck, even two), I’ll benefit in unexpected ways.

But, despite my age (43), I realize I’m coming late to the party.  This book is filled with usable, wonderful material that comes wrapped in a package of foundational  thinking.  The new stuff within these pages is fantastic.  But it’s the reiteration of sound, structural thinking that makes me realize I just might be behind the curve.

I’m convinced that there are magicians far better than me that already know a lot of this stuff.  They have to.  How else do they stay great? Johnny Thompson, who many say is our best all-around living practitioner, knows this stuff.  Copperfield knows this stuff.  And David Blaine, who helped re-popularize minimal, everyday-object (or no prop) magic; the guy who turned a paper cup of coffee into a cup of coins for an international audience – he knows this stuff.

And even if our “biggest” trick is producing six to eight bunnies from a spectator’s closed hand, shouldn’t we also know this stuff?

Shouldn’t we?

Yes.

We should.

Why?

Because it will make us better magicians.  We may not know exactly how or why or even when.

But it will.

I just know it.

I once got the opportunity to talk to three-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee at a party in San Diego, and I asked him if he felt, as a writer, that he needed to do it every day.  And as proud of myself as I was for asking what I felt was an insightful question that I (and those within our earshot) could benefit from, he reacted as though it was a stupid question.

“I hate questions like that,” he said.

“Because it implies that if I don’t write daily then I’m not a writer.  Which I am.  So the answer is no, I don’t have to write every day, because every day after I wake up I think like a writer, and that’s enough.”

I didn’t ask him any more questions.

But the lesson reverberated.

How is this applicable to magic?  Well, how many of us fiddle around with new tricks every day, we browse the web, watch demos on YouTube, put in our two cents on the Magic Café, see what’s new on the Genii Forum, troll Ebay, chat or text with other magic buddies, click on magic fan pages on Facebook, listen to interviews on the Magic Newswire, thumb through the pages of the latest issue of Magic magazine, attend the local IBM or SAM meeting, and yet…

(Big Yet)

…we don’t think like magicians.

I’m afraid that the answer is a whole hell of a lot of us.

Will this book change that?

Maybe.

It did a bit, for me.

It’s certainly a start.

There’s real brilliance within these pages.  Technological, methodological, psychological, and there’s also problem solving, efficiency, simplicity, elegance, and perseverance.  Steinmeyer states that one idea included in the book was the result of over twenty years of searching.  I almost feel guilty being the beneficiary of these treasures for a mere hundred and thirty-five bucks.  One illusion, “Nowhere”, has four variations(!), all good, and each different enough to warrant inclusion.

The publishing of a book is sort of like a time capsule, and were another edition to be published soon, I’m confident we’d see additional ideas, because it’s a safe bet that Steinmeyer is thinking about magic, in one form or another, at this very moment, as you read this, and I for one feel lucky to be living while he’s alive, because it means there’s more from him to look forward to.

Reading this book is like taking a tour through a master’s workshop and being privy, in minute detail, to the mechanizations and machinations of actual, working illusions, some used only by their creator, all of them of the highest quality.  Journeying through this virtual workshop, I got melancholy when I remembered that this mystical journey would indeed end upon reaching the last page, despite my longing that it continue.  I’m reminded of that feeling as a child of watching “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and knowing an hour into it that the majority of the movie was over.  Even with the knowledge that a second, third, or fourth viewing was possible, I knew it wouldn’t be the same.

That’s what I felt reading this book.

So am I now planning on performing stage magic?

No.

But am I now interested in learning more about stage magic?

Absolutely.  Especially, as Steinmeyer states, “the elegance of how ‘effect’ and ‘method’ combine in a great illusion”.  As an exercise in efficient problem solving, graceful handling, novel presentations, and exclusive insight offered by Jim, I now have a new intellectual pastime to add to my magic canon.

There were times when, reading this book, I felt it was a royal banquet of ideas and concepts and, until now, I’ve been a Fried Appetizer Conjurer.  Technique & Understanding is an invitation to sit at the big table with the big boys of magic, and a wise and benevolent host who can not only explain in detail how each morsel of food that you’re enjoying was prepared, but where it came from, why it was made, and how it matters to your dining experience.  For this host is also the master chef, and each of his meals are like this – rich, nutritious, and mighty tasty.

(I promise never to use gastronomical analogies again when reviewing a magic book.)

Many of the greatest secrets in this book appear to be parenthetical asides, even seemingly throwaway remarks.  Pearls of wisdom casually tossed to unsuspecting swine.

(Ditto the barnyard analogies.)

This is not a book to be just read, but studied.  If, one day, as I hope, my son asks to seriously learn some real secrets of magic, I can do no better than placing this book on a very short list.

I’ve focused a bit on the illusions in this book because they constitute new, uncharted territory for me.  Suffice to say that the stand-up effects are all great to fantastic, and the lectures in the first part of the book were my favorite part, bringing me up to speed with the privileged few who originally heard these words live. They constitute an exclusive invitation that I was happy to receive.

Other’s have commented on the masterpiece that is “Toccata for Lightbulb and Paper Bag”.  Eric Mead said it was the first page he turned to, having been wowed by it in an earlier performance.  It is, without question, a supreme example of elegant (there’s that damn word again!) amazement, and the method is just as beautiful as the effect.  What more could you ask for?

In terms of practical concerns, there’s more useful information in the half page that constitutes 221 than in several entire magic books that currently rest on my shelf.  Why?  Just like any good magician, Steinmeyer knows what to put forth and what to leave out (a discipline I have yet to master in my book reviews!).  There is not one sentence of filler here.  Rather, 300 pages of pure, unadulterated, concentrated quality.

During technical explanations of the construction of various apparatus, I admit I was often lost.  Nowhere was this more evident than with “Cube-ism” (pg. 229), a veritable Rubik’s cube/Origami device that I may never fully understand on paper.  (Sigh.) But perhaps I’m being prepared for later, advanced studies, sort of like the student being thrown into the water by the teacher in order to learn to swim.  (Tubing, notches, angles, scrim… Give me a few years and I think I’ll get it.)

But I forced myself to keep reading each word, in part because I found this new information to be surprisingly entertaining and laden with nuggets of ideas and principles that are applicable to other forms of magic and creative endeavors, much in the same way that elements of disciplines such as film, writing, and dance can inform and inspire.

So I urge you not to just gloss over those pages you think irrelevant to your current pursuits.  Instead, honor the offering you’ve been presented with and put in the required time and effort to read it – even if just once.  I’m willing to bet that something unexpected and useful will stick.  Consider it a bonus.

For example, just when I was about to take a sandwich break in the midst of barely understanding the full range of intended teachings of “Cube-ism”, I had what I considered to be a creative, original, worthy thought:  Wouldn’t it be cool if, when the painting is unfolded, it’s shown to be different?  Say, the woman is now missing, or crying, or there’s no more flowers, etc.?”

And then, on page 236,  I read this:

“I would suggest resisting the tendency to improve on the effect by having the painting change during the course of the routine.  It’s an obvious surprise that seems so obvious as to be ineffective, and it falls at a moment in the routine – as the box is opened out flat – to perfectly distract from the larger effect with a small, fussy, mechanical effect on the face of the painting.”

This is yet another example (of many) of a master artist/teacher/engineer/author anticipating a flaw in a student’s contribution to an effect – before the fact!  Steinmeyer has been down these roads long before you, countless times.  Trust his words and apply his thinking to your other effects and routines.  Herein lies the exponential and lasting value of this, and his other books.

Another notable section is the final one, Unique Solutions, particularly “The Nature of Empty”, ruminations on the nature of an empty box.

Fascinating.

I’m not inventive enough (yet) to adequately apply all of these principles to my current repertoire, but I’m confident in my abilities as a magician to be able to grasp and perhaps even be conversant in a general discussion of these concepts (I know the difference between an Optical Wedge and an Optical Slot table!)

It’s not the easiest book to read, and of course it shouldn’t be.  It demands thought, imagination, reflection, speculation, and commitment.  And prior magical knowledge wouldn’t hurt either.  But, for me, it provided tangible proof of actual learning.  An exponential increase in potential applications (as evidenced by my six pages of notes) and a substantial (dare I say pivotal?) addition to my 30+ years of performing arts education.

From one magic book.

Technique & Understanding is an important, modern work that will be relevant for many, many years  It’s a master class in magic, and it awaits you.

You can order it here.