This memoir of magic will mesmerize you

Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini is truly something special. A fan of magic since age 5 and an accomplished performer, Stone has written a deeply personal memoir of his love affair with magic that successfully juggles centuries of history, personal anecdotes and scientific concepts. It’s a joy for both magicians and fans, a meditation on how magic works and why. As audience members we delight in being tricked, but Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind (HarperCollins, $27) is a satisfying treat.

Stone begins Fooling Houdini with his own spectacular failure at the 2006 World Championships of Magic in Stockholm—“the Magic Olympics.” After being dismissed mid-act, he abandons magic and enrolls in a Ph.D. program in physics at Columbia University. Of course, Stone’s disenchantment doesn’t last long. Much of Fooling Houdini is about how Stone got his magic mojo back, through research, study and a lot of practice.

Fooling Houdini works because Stone is an unabashed fan. He speaks of being mesmerized by David Copperfield as a child, and tells the story of sleight-of-hand legend Dai Vernon, who—in 1922—performed the same illusion (the “Ambitious Card” routine, referred to as a perfect trick) eight times for the great Harry Houdini, who was completely mystified by Vernon’s performance.

In order to master magic, Stone—a dues-paying member of the Society of American Magicians since 2005—heads to Las Vegas for master classes at Jeff McBride’s Magic & Mystery School. In New York, he seeks out Wesley James, (an accomplished magician and Vernon disciple), who spends Saturdays holding court at a pizza parlor offering criticism, advice and encouragement.

Stone devotes a chapter to Richard Turner, an acknowledged card master despite being blind. Turner’s fingers are so sensitive he notified a major playing-card company about production defects in their decks. Elsewhere, Stone unveils an informative chapter on three-card monte and the origins of street hustlers courtesy of classes at the legendary Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

Misdirection is a main ingredient in magic; to understand it, Stone seeks out Arien Mack, a research psychologist who studies cognition. Under Mack’s guidance, Stone participates in a study of “inattentional blindness” in which he steals every participant’s wristwatch, fooling more than 80 percent of the subjects. In a chapter on mentalists, Stone discusses the ethics of “mind-reading.”

Stone repeatedly notes connections between magic and science (particularly psychology and physics), and does an admirable job of capturing the community of magicians. Fooling Houdini is a finely wrought history of magic, with big names and equally big tricks, but it will also appeal to anyone seeking encouragement for achieving their goals. ★★★★☆