by Micah Lasher
[Reviewed by Jon Racherbaumer]
"Who's this kid playing fifty-two-card pick-up?"
"I should know?"
"You're a magician, aren't you?"
"Never heard of the guy. Book looks good! Probably for beginners." "Aren't they all?"
This new trade paperback is remarkable on several counts: (1) It was planned, organized, and written by a fourteen-year-old; (2) Its publisher approached and enjoined its writer, not the other way around; (3) It is aimed at the public and sold in main-stream book stores;(4) Instead of getting consensus praise from the magic community, we heard many rants about "publicity-seeking upstarts" and "flagrant exposure of magic secrets." So, what gives?
Lasher admits that it took two years to complete this book. Although he had assistance from other quarters, he did the lion's share of the work. He also selected all the material himself, drawing from the stuff he learned during the last nine years. (Yes, it's true. Micah started learning at five years of age!.) Does this mean that Micah Lasher a wunderkind of sorts? Perhaps. The Technicolor photograph on the cover of his book shows a well-groomed, young man, sleeves rolled up, looking alert and serious—a partial deck in one hand, the Ace of Hearts in the other. Several cards cascade in midair. Deja vu? Harry Lorayne's The Magic Book (1977) shows him cascading cards from hand-to-hand. (Harry, by the way, was 51 years old at the time.) Book browsers will probably miss the point of this action shot, although Lasher's eyes look as startled as a deer's caught in the glare of an onrushing car's headlights.
Magical wunderkinds are few and far between. I know of only two that fit this dubious description: Persi Diaconis and David Copperfield. The former, who eschewed the limelight, won his underground reputation at the tender age of twelve by demonstrating advanced Riffle Shuffle work at an Abbott's Convention. His innate brilliance later resulted in receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. Copperfield had his own television special while still a teenager. The rest of his career speaks for itself. Lasher may be the only magician to publish a mainstream book before turning fifteen.
Cynics will cry nepotism. His aunt and uncle are literary agents. Things get done, at least in part, because of networking. The rest is fortuitous. If Molly O'Neil had not written a large article in the New York Times (which mentioned Lasher and his age), the snowball effect may have never begun. But we should give Lasher his due. He is a smart, strongly desirous, focused, and skillful kid. Compared to others his age and to most magic hobbyists of any age, he is a talented performer. You can also safely wager a gross of Tally-Ho decks that he studies, practices, and thinks about magic more intensely than most magician-hobbyists. Granted: he started his apprenticeship during an unprecedented "information explosion." He had easy access to the greatest ideas, tricks, and sleights developed during the past 100 years. It also helps to live in New York City—a worldly, teeming metropolis filled with golden opportunities. By accident and design, Lasher's inherent aptitude was nurtured by willing teachers and boosters and he acknowledges 37 persons, plus members of Assembly 25 (S.A.M.), in his book.
We live in a hard-copy age of hype and fleeting celebrity. Television producers recklessly troll for "stories" to feed channel-surfers and hard-core vidiots. If you are a fourteen-year-old magician who is good...hey! you will likely end up performing for David Letterman and Bryan Gumbel. Whiz kids make the six o'clock news.
Lasher's book, in its own words, is "essentially a beginner's book." This kind of book has many precursors: John Scarne, Jean Hugard, Shari Lewis, Paul Curry, Bill Severn, Bob Longe, Karl Fulves, Frank Garcia-George Schindler, Mark Wilson, Harry Blackstone Jr., Paul Daniels, Pat Page, Bill Tarr, Bruce Elliott... Many of the tricks in these books are recycled fodder. I would recommend Lasher's book to beginners and collectors. Otherwise, the rest of magicdom can skip it. Killjoys who detest any kind of public exposure are crying foul. Pitbulls of our shaky meritocracy descry everything that is wrong, misguided, trivial, and ill-advised in this book. They expect to see perennials like the 21-Card Trick, Glass Through The Table, and the Rope Through Neck to reappear in beginner books, but blanch when they see the Slop Shuffle (Triumph), Retention Vanish, Miller Penetration, and Professor's Nightmare in a so-called beginner's book.
This 8 V2 x 11 paper-back sells for a modest $15. It features 48 solid tricks and sleights. If you gauge a book's value by its quantativeness, this has considerable "bang" for the "buck." Akemi Yoshida's 210 clarifying, user-friendly illustrations are immediately seductive and freshen Joseph Leeming's effective approach from yesteryear. Beginners, providing their interest in learning "tricks" is genuine, will be attracted to this book like moths to a flame. On this count, Lasher deserves more praise than he is getting.
The "exposure" issue, according to Lasher, does not involve his book. He writes: "I try to differentiate teaching and exposure. In the case of teaching, the student has to expend effort to gain the information. First, they have to go to the bookstore and find the book. Then, they have to buy the book or take it out of the library. Finally, they have to study it to learn how to perform the magic inside. This is compared to a television scenario where all the viewer has to do is turn on the TV and learn the secret of a trick."
Lasher also talks about intent: "Most television teaching/exposure segments do not have the potential to create new magicians. This is for two reasons—the short time normally allotted to these segments allows for no real information to be transmitted to the viewer beyond the bare bones of the trick. Also, it does not give the viewer any more of a view of magic that the single trick they are watching."
It is difficult to square publishing these kind of books when the joint resolution issued by the I.B.M. and S.A.M. state that they "oppose the willful exposure to the public of any principles of the Art of Magic, or the methods employed in any magic effect or illusion." This resolution seems clear and straightforward. Fundamentalists of this ethical resolve strictly interpret it. Others with various axes to grind, agendas to enact, and businesses to run believe in a more tacit, flexible interpretation.
Professional magicians in the good old days agreed that "public exposure" threatened their livelihood. If the audience knew how "tricks" are done, the magician's ability to "suspend the disbelief" was weakened or compromised. Magic dealers are exposers. After World War II, when the number of amateurs dramatically increased, magic dealers had an expanded market to service. Their goal was to recruit new customers and expand their business. The magic societies do the same thing. They recruit new dues-paying members increase to finance their "business"— publishing a magazine and hosting an annual convention. Members, in turn, support dealers by buying goods. This cozy symbiosis between "magicians" and magic dealers was inevitable. The irony is that "exposing" is a necessary process to create new "magicians." Taken to a logical extreme, for every new "magician" that is created, there is one less uninformed spectator to watch. If everyone in America learned how to perform the "Invisible Deck," who would be left to be entertained by it? This, of course, is not likely to happen (despite the efforts of Marshall Brodien and Magic Masters.) This "gray area" will remain. Secrets will continue to be sold and tipped. Mainstream books, like Lasher's, will periodically be published. The recycling process will continue. The hue and cry that surrounds each new book eventually dies. The sad fact is that most mainstream magic books end up "remaindered." Unsold copies are dumped in sale bins. Lasher's book is a admirable product. He confided that "seeing the finished book was a wonderful moment in my life...on the other hand, I know that when all is said and done with the book and I have moved on in my life, I will feel a certain loss that part of me is finished and left behind. I know that will be sad." Truman Capote once wrote: "Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the yard and shot it." Another writer said: A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down...If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him." Right now Micah's pants are down. I applaud him for taking the time and the risks; for marching to his own drummer. He has already done what few magicians will ever do.
I have two problems with this book. The first problem concerns its title, The Magic of MicahLasher. I see very little of Micah Lasher's magic here. What I do see is the magic of Sid Lorraine, Charlie Miller, David Roth, John Ramsay, Bob Carver, and the anonymous inventors of Do as I Do, the Glass Through the Table, the Twenty-one Card Trick, and the Bill in the Orange. All writers of magic books (myself included) utilize the information created by those who have come before. The question is: Does the author build on what has come before, or is the material simply rehashed and regurgitated? One approach gives back to Magic, the other approach simply takes from it.
My other problem concerns the tone of the book. The main "hook" of The Magic of Micah Lasher is that it was written by a fourteen year old. But, I find very little in this book which would even give you the impression that a young person had written it. Certainly, Micah is to be congratulated if he indeed has such a mature writing style, but very little in this book gives the viewpoint of a young person interested in becoming a good magician. There are many mentions of the various television programs that Micah has appeared on, and while this is wonderful self-promotion, these are not experiences which most teenagers will relate to.
Having reached the mid-point of my life, I realize that the world is divided into Givers and Takers. Curiously, the Givers continue to give, regardless of how they are treated. Not so curiously, the Takers continue to take. Your opinion of this young author and his book will depend on which category you place him.
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