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Mark Rough
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I really enjoy your book reviews in the Secret Arts Journal. You've been responsible for adding quite a few good non-magic books to my shelves. (And two of my favorite magic books as well, Brain Food, and the Magic Mirror.) I know you put together a reading list for Mystery School all those years ago. Any chance you'd reprint the list?

What would Wavy do?
David Parr
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Hi. I wish I still had that file but, after several computer upgrades and a move southward, I can't locate it. But you raise an interesting topic for discussion: I'm of the opinion that magicians should read books. And not just magic books. How can I learn how to construct compelling stories and scripts with which to entertain audiences if all I read are technical instruction manuals?

When I seek inspiration for new material, I often find it outside the realm of stage conjuring, in the wide world. There are plenty of fascinating books with magical themes and even practical advice, books that are available in local bookstores! Here are a few books that have been inspiring and useful to me:

1. The Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling. I'll put this simply: J.K. Rowling is defining magic in the popular imagination. I am unlikely in my lifetime to ever again meet someone who has not heard of Harry Potter. I owe it to myself and my audiences to check in and see what the prevailing view of magic is all about. (And I can't rely on the movies to provide this for me. With the exception of the third film, the movies have failed to capture what makes these books so charming.) After reading the Harry Potter books, I ran across a related book that has been a wonderful resource: The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter by Allan and Elizabeth Kronzek. This book provides excellent information about all the mythical creatures and magical concepts that appear in the Harry Potter books, everything from amulets to zombies.

2. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. This a really magical little book by a physicist at MIT. The year is 1905. A patent clerk named Albert Einstein has fallen asleep at his desk. He dreams about worlds in which the nature of time is different from ours: a world in which time runs very slowly, or very quickly, or stops and starts unpredictably. These excursions into magical worlds will later inform Einstein's theories about the nature of time and space.... What I appreciated most about this book is how spare and simple and yet how poetic the text is. There are no unnecessary words, only what is essential. This is a quality I hope to strive for in my magic scripts.

3. King of the Conjurers by Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. This autobiography by the father of modern conjuring reads like an adventure novel plotted by Arthur Conan Doyle, filled with amazing coincidences and fascinating twists of fate. It's a superb example of what author-cartoonist Lynda Barry calls "autobifictionalography." Regardless of — or perhaps because of — how much of it was made up, this book has been a great source of inspiration to me (and it certainly taught Houdini a thing or two about myth-making).

4. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders by Lawrence Weschler. This book is about a very special little museum, a museum in which fact and fiction are blended so seamlessly that one cannot tell which is which. Mr. Wilson is playing the same game in Los Angeles that P.T. Barnum did in his American Museum in New York. Visitors are being tricked by some of the displays, which are completely false and fabricated, but other displays are actually based on real-life curiosities. Where and to what degree the viewer is being fooled is a mystery. Isn't this essentially the same imaginative play as in a magic show?

5. Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster. A street urchin in Depression-era America is given a bizarre opportunity to alter his destiny. If he agrees to place himself under the mentorship of an imposing stage conjurer, the man will teach the boy to fly. If the master fails in this task, he will allow the boy to chop off his head. And that is a summary of just the first few pages of this magical coming-of-age tale. This novel, and almost all of Auster's work, is a fine example of "magical realism." The characters are so well drawn, the time and place they occupy so detailed and believable, that when an element of fantasy or magic is introduced into the story — levitating humans, for instance — the reader accepts it as a reality within the confines of the tale. I hope to achieve something similar in my performances by deliberately placing magic effects within a context of believable details.

Does anyone have other recommendations to share?
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Little, Big by John Crowley

This is a book that is otherwordly, commonplace, magical, and ordinary -- all at the same time. The genre? New England style magical realism, if there is such a thing. The story unwinds slowly, in dense, poetic language that's so striking that it's almost a another character in the story. It's a Tale that's both as frustrating and satisfying as a dream.
"To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time."

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Matt Graves
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I second the recommendation for the Harry Potter books, even though my grandmother swears they are Satanic. Smile

The most "magical" novel I've ever read is probably _Demian_ by Hermann Hesse. And I read it _before_ I knew that it was one of David Blaine's favorite books.

Ambrose Bierce's short stories also have an otherworldly, mystical feeling to them.

And anything by Henry David Thoreau. He was living magic.
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Hey DP!

Writing classes and texts have two mantras: "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know." My question concerns the latter. You have written that you seek inspiration from literary works. I know, from having seen you perform many times, that the end result of this work is magic. I agree with you that reading good stories can help magicians craft better stories/presentations. However, I'm not sure if I want to create magic borne of someone else's imagination. I've been struggling with this for a long time.

What do you think of allowing yourself to be inspired by your life experiences? Do you think magicians writing what they know can work?

Ben B.
'And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.'
Roald Dahl
David Parr
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This is a very good question, Ben. Some time ago I was asked to guest teach a writing workshop, and in my notes for that session I addressed the oft-repeated phrase "write what you know." Here's what I had to say about it: I'm not sure that this piece of advice is actually very helpful. Let me put it this way: If writers strictly confined themselves to writing what they knew, would much of the world's great fiction exist? What did Verne know about space travel? What did Poe know about sherry? There are learned persons who stridently insist that Shakespeare could not possibly have written his works. How could the son of a glover have written so convincingly about the sorts of things nobles got up to behind closed doors? (Hm. Might imagination have had something to do with it?)

Forget "write what you know." One needn't commit adultery to write The Scarlet Letter. I think the following advice would be more useful: Write about what fascinates you.

When I say that I seek inspiration from literature and film, I don't mean lifting the plot of a story or movie wholesale. I mean finding some element that appeals to me — a phrase, an image, a setting, a tone — and somehow putting it to use in my magic. ("Dinner with the Borgias," for instance, provided an opportunity for me to use Graham Greene's wonderful line from The Third Man.)

I think we should definitely incorporate our past experiences and current concerns into our magic. This is part of what Bob Neale and I were attempting to encourage in "An Application Exercise" from The Magic Mirror (p. 74). I try to include one "personal history" piece — a routine in which I share with the audience a bit of my past — in all of my shows. It leaves people with the impression that they've gotten know me, not just as a performer but as a person.

I hope my thoughts on this subject are of help to you. If anyone else has any further thoughts, please share them with us!
Lee Darrow
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Some personal favorites include the Chronicles of the Deryni (a series of books) by Katherine Kurtz. Overtly sword & sorcery, they are some of the best palace intrigue stories I have ever read, give a real insight into the worries of the onset of the Inquisition and some really interesting ideas on hypnotic techniques (the first three books were written before Katherine had had ANY training in hypnosis, whatsoever).

Anything by H.P. Lovecraft is worthwhile as there is inspiration galore (as well as a lot of nightmares-in-training), even if one isn't doing bizarrist or seance materials.

And T.H. White's Once and Future King. While far from the seminal work on the Arthurian legend, there's some great ideas for transformational magic in there.

The Mists of Avalon - by Marian Zimmer Bradley - she did quite a bit of research on the magickal aspects of the book and the characters are well worth the read.

Just a few fantasy works that might be useful to those who have not read them yet.

Lee Darrow, C.H.
<BR>"Because NICE Matters!"
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On the Hermann Hesse idea, I find "Magister Ludi" to be the best of his books. I loved Demian and Siddartha - but Magister Ludi is so shockingly good - about a boy being bred to become master of the "Glass Bead Game," a game that spans all fields of learning and art. The idea is so good that there are quite a few variants of the Glass Bead Game and spinoffs of this idea in real life.

Google 'glass bead game' to see what I mean.

Very magical stuff.

Totally off topic, but my favourite book of all time is David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."


Tony Noice
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Hi David,
It's good to see you credit Graham Greene with that great line. However, he denies it. Greene said that it is certainly the most quoted line from the film but that he had nothing to do with it. Orsen Welles added it to the script because he thought it captured the character of Harry Lime.
David Parr
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Hi Tony. Thanks much for the info about Greene/Welles. Didn't know that. I just bought a book about the production of The Third Man, but have been too busy with prep for Halloween to read it. It'll have to wait until November.

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