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Copyright

Title: Hiding the Elephant
Author: Jim Steinmeyer
Publisher: Carroll and Graf
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0786712260
Pages: 351
Price: $26.00
Rating: 90%
There's a popular misconception in magic: that the secret methods are the most important part of an entertaining act. That's not the case. To paraphrase Henry Hay, the pen name of the author of The Amateur Magician's Handbook, you can entertain perfectly well without secrets, but without those secrets you can't, by definition, be a magician.

That said, magicians (a fellowship of which I am proud to be a member) guard their secrets jealously. In writing Hiding the Elephant, author Jim Steinmeyer takes a bit of a risk in revealing some of the tricks of the trade. Steinmeyer is one of the world's premier illusion designers, though, so I was inclined to trust his judgment in deciding where to draw the line. After reading the book, I see that my trust was well-placed. There is no gratuitous exposure of the likes you see on third-rate US television networks that have made their way by lucking into two or three hit series (one animated). Instead, what you'll find are descriptions of principles and some specific applications of those principles to create theatrical illusions. I knew Steinmeyer had hit the right level of detail when I read a review on Amazon where the reader (probably very young, maybe not even in high school) said that he'd read half the book and hadn't learned how any of the tricks were done.

The framework for the book's narrative is the hunt for the method that Harry Houdini used to make an elephant disappear during a show at the Hippodrome in 1918. Even though the effect was spectacular, it was wasted on an audience that was mostly too high above the stage or too far to the sides to look into the box when it was shown empty. But the effect was dazzling to magicians. You'll have to read the book to find out how the story ends, but you will be entertained by the story of Solomon, a Yorkshire donkey, who played an indirect but important role in Houdini's endeavor.

Readers will also be happy to know that there's much more to Hiding the Elephant than a recounting of the author's search for the method Houdini used at the Hippodrome that night. You'll also find intriguing stories about the relationships of magicians who pushed the magical arts in new theatrical and technical directions, where the friendships began and ended, where rivalries sparked and resolved, and when their innovations were first presented under the harsh, critical eye of the theater-going public. It all makes for fascinating reading.

And yes, you do find out how the elephant went away. But do yourself a favor and don't jump ahead. As with most secrets, the process of discovery is far more interesting than the revelation.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is also the author of three online courses and thirteen books, including Microsoft Office Excel 2003 Step By Step and Privacy-Enhanced Business. He was formerly an analyst for The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.