From Dan Stashower...
I was eleven years old and spending a rainy afternoon at the Coventry Village Library, in Cleveland Heights. The book was Dunninger’s Complete Encyclopedia of Magic. Each page had an illustration of a cool, confident, debonair conjurer performing a miracle of some type. He was often surrounded by a crowd of attractive men and women in evening dress, their faces glowing with admiration.
The tricks were frankly ridiculous. In one, the reader was instructed on the proper method of lighting a cigarette with a chunk of ice – it involved a concealed pellet of potassium. Another, in which candles were to be lit and extinguished with a wave of the hand, required a hidden array of air compressors, electric motors and a “copper tube solenoid.” My favorite was the production of a “nickel-plated bowl, from which streamers of fire pour forth to lick the ceiling.” This one involved a ring of asbestos, a flammable liquid, and an “ordinary blank cartridge mounted on a steel plunger.” What could possibly go wrong?
Suffice it to say, no cigarettes were ever lit by chunks of ice in my house, and no streamers of fire licked the ceiling. I don’t know that I ever managed to bring off a single one of the tricks in that book. Even so, I spent hours poring over its levitating pocket watches and exploding billiard balls. For me, it wasn’t so much a book of tricks as a manual of style. “While seated with friends at the dinner table,” ran one description, “there is nothing of greater value at the threshold of popularity than a good, impressive, mystifying pocket trick.” Truth be told, my own experiences in later years did not bear this out, and I found myself stumbling at the threshold of popularity. Maybe if I’d been able to get my hands on some potassium.
I suppose this is the point where I should get to the Big Theme – but isn’t this the point of libraries, I should say, that they unlock the secrets of knowledge and make them available to one and all? But I can’t bring myself to say any such thing. For me, finding Dunninger’s Encyclopedia was a source of anxiety and apprehension. I didn’t want the secrets unlocked for one and all. I wanted them for me. Me, alone. What’s the point of a secret if it’s just sitting out there in the open, waiting for the next eleven-year-old kid who happens to wander in out of the rain? Stay home, kid. That book is mine.
But if you can spare a copper tube solenoid, drop me a line.