Ricky Jay really hates the book 'Fooling Houdini'

Halfway through reading Alex Stone's memoir, Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, I read Ricky Jay's blisteringly negative review of the book in the Wall Street Journal. Cleverly titled "Slight of Hand," Jay described Stone's book as "an ostensibly self-effacing memoir by an inept amateur conjurer."

I love Ricky Jay's magic, his books, his quarterly magazine, and his performances. Jay is a talented magician and a fascinating storytelling historian of magic, con artists, and sideshows. He's certainly a more talented magician and a more knowledgable historian that Stone. And Jay rightfully calls out several errors of fact that Stone made in Fooling Houdini.

But even so, I finished Stone's book because I was fascinated by his story.

He starts by recounting his tragically humiliating disqualification at an international magic competition (he was the only magician to get "red-lighted" in the middle of a performance -- the equivalent of getting "gonged"). So ashamed was he by the unceremonious ejection from the stage that he gave up magic and pursued a post-grad degree in physics.

Eventually the lure of the conjuring arts called him back, but this time around, Stone got serious. He sought mentors, practiced incessantly, researched magic history, and read up on the psychology of deception and the limits of human perception.

Then Stone experiences his magic-related tragedy. He wrote an article about his experience at the magic competition for Harper's, in which he explained how some of the tricks were done. Fellow members of the magic society he was a member were incensed by his violation of the magician's code and tried to drum him out. Determined to defend himself, Stone hired a lawyer and was able to keep his membership. The experience seemed to make him even more determined to continue on his magical journey.

As a result of his work and research Stone became a better magician and gained respect for masters of the craft, including Jay, whom he writes of reverently in his book. When Steven Levitt of Freaknomics interviewed Stone and asked him what he thought of Jay's WSJ review, Stone said, "That guy's a legend. It's an honor even to be criticized by him."

(Clive Thompson, Joshua Glenn, and I discussed fooling Houdini on the most recent episode of Gweek.)

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind

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  1. jim_h says:

    I liked the book, fwiw, but then I like most books on the subject of magic. I'm easy to please that way. IMHO Mr. Stone reveals very little about the sacred How It Is Done and more about the physics and psychology involved in being fooled and wanting to be fooled.

    I really enjoyed the description of how thousands of hours of practice can create enough sensitivity in the fingertips to successfully cut a deck exactly in half every time. And how a perfect riffle shuffle (every other card through the deck) six times in a row can restore a deck to its original order...

    These are the revelations, and more power to you if you can develop the skill to master them- mostly he astonishes the reader with what is actually possible rather than some simple explanation of a gaff or sleight.

    Still, I respect Mr. Jay's contributions to the art from "Cards as Weapons" through his work with David Mamet, and eventually to Deadwood. I agree with Mr. Stone, it would be an honor to have him call me an "inept amateur"!

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