Book review: “How Magicians Think”

Pick a card. Any card.

Don’t show it to anyone. Just look at it, quick, and put it back in the deck anywhere at random. Now think about that card. Think about the number, the suit, how many symbols were on it, the color, the shape. Concentrate hard on the card you chose and then wonder – as in the new book “How Magicians Think” by Josuha Jay – what the magician is concentrating on.

How did he do that?

If you’re like most people, that’s your first reaction when you catch a magic act: how did the person with the tricks manage to fool you, right in front of your face? That question, says Joshua Jay, is the wrong “mindset.”

“Magic tricks aren’t puzzles,” 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 glamourous life but Jay says that touring means that he misses birthdays, holidays, and “all the important stuff.” He practices constantly and because his hands are essential to his work, he’s given up previously-enjoyed hobbies 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 done differently in every country – and he’s been to the famed Magic Castle. He’s invented a number of tricks that he knows can be teased apart by other magicians but he’s not worried because “Magic has a strict code of ethics.”

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

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

On our most mawkish days, we sometimes like to romantically think that we’ve managed to maintain the innocence of a child. That’s not good, from a magician’s POV, says author Joshua Jay; in reality, kids are the hardest customers to fool.

And so that coin-behind-the-ear trick you planned on doing at Thanksgiving? Throw it out 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 the tired tropes to become the big-stage attraction that it is, even when some of it is bigger-than-life and often dangerous. 

In that, he assures readers that what they see is real.

But how can that be? Jay (no relation to Ricky Jay) isn’t telling. What you read in this book – including his list of favorites and tales of performing and creating – won’t ruin the illusion for you. You can enjoy “How Magicians Think,” you can walk yourself through a trick, shake your head, and still be wow’d. In fact, slack-jawed awe… yeah, it’s in the cards.

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

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

Author Joshua Jay.