Comments on bibliography — Part 2: The unremarkable rise of the magic bibliographer . . .

Note:  Like the preceding post, this post is based essentially on my own (limited) experience.  It mainly represents impressions I have, and even if I am wrong on most of it, there has to be some truth there.

They say that nature abhors a vacuum.

And a vacuum may have given rise to magic bibliographers.

And that vacuum was created by the existence of magic literature — not just a few books, not just dozens, or scores, or even hundreds — but thousands, and depending on what is counted, maybe tens of thousands (or more) of magic items that could be described bibliographically, including books, booklets, periodicals, and probably many other forms of literature.

One thing that may be shocking to “outsiders” is the fact that magic literature possesses that vastness — the books and periodicals on the subject exist seemingly without number.  And, indeed, there are interesting issues that exist in that connection.

After all, magic is often thought to be more or less a secret art.

Of course, that is almost entirely a fiction.

And that whole topic is an interesting one, and I started to get into it once on my “The Armchair Bibliographer” blog, here.  But for now, I am not going to get into that.

But one different question which is highly related to the question of magic bibliographies is the issue of why there are so many books about the literature of conjuring.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “works on conjuring.”  That is, I’m not talking about books explaining magic secrets, or telling one how to become a magician. I’m not talking about books on sleight of hand, or on magic apparatus.  And I am not talking about books on magic “theory,” or the like.  I’m not even talking about books on magic history.  (And I am certainly not talking about periodicals, or parts of books, on such subjects.)

No, to repeat, I am not talking about those kinds of books and other works. Instead, I am talking about books (or parts of books, or periodicals) about those kinds of works. Primarily, I suppose that I am talking about magic bibliographies, but I am also talking about a wide range of other publications.

Of course, once it is established that the literature of conjuring is vast, I suppose that it is logical to assume that a literature about the literature would arise. Naturally, the magic field has its own peculiarities, and I guess that a philosopher might occupy himself (or herself) for decades trying to discover why people would want to write not about magic itself, but about the literature of magic.

Personally, I tend to think that somewhere the “literature about the literature” got derailed.  It is similar to a large freight-train moving swiftly through a wide expanse of desert, headed toward a destination called “Great Bibliographies City.” But when it is a couple of hundred miles from the destination, it leaps the track. Say it’s a 100-car train.  The first 97 or so cars leave the track, and only three or so continue on to the destination.  The original 97 cars (the ones that jumped the track) continue along on the desert floor, but they don’t do so well.  The break apart from each other, and some stall or flip over.  All go in different directions from the original track.  Some even start travelling back to the point of origin. But within a fairly short time, they are all hopelessly lost in the desert.

More specifically, something — I don’t know what — made “interested people” think that the world of magic literature — that is, the topic of magic literature (bibliographies and such) — apart from the topic of magic (that is, tricks and such) — was super-accessible.  People began to think that no particular training, background, or education was necessary in order to write about magic books.  All you had to be was a human being.

But wait — I don’t think I am making myself clear.  When I say that people thought there were no prerequisites, no minimum knowledge — that is what I mean.  I don’t mean that you had to be interested in magic for at least a year, or you had to have read at least two magic books.  I mean, no qualifications — none!

Oh, all right.  You caught me in an exaggeration.  I have exaggerated a little in the previous paragraph.  But I am trying to make a point — there are not many scholarly bibliographers in the magic field — people capable of creating first-class bibliographies (or, if there are, not many of them have made themselves widely known).

Let me interrupt with a little footnote here.  I actually think that the same thing basically applies to those who write about the “secrets” of magic.  I wonder whether there is any other field of endeavor besides magic wherein the feeling that one is qualified to write about it is so widespread among those interested in the topic.

I’m not talking about somebody setting up a Twitter account and making idiotic comments — or a Facebook page peppered with unintelligent remarks, or a blog with hare-brained ramblings.

No, friends, I am talking about people actually printing, publishing, marketing, and selling books, booklets, and periodicals on a subject.  But that aspect of the bigger question is beyond the scope of this particular post.

Anyway, I’ll now mention a few specific bibliographies, and I’ll draw a few conclusions.

One of the earliest, and most justifiable, bibliographies was that put together by Henry Ridgely Evans, and which was published in Hopkins’s Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions Including Trick Photography, which was first published in 1897 or so.  The bibliography was primarily assembled by Henry Ridgely Evans, one of magic’s early historians.  W.E. Robinson (who later became Chung Ling Soo) and H.J. Burlingame assisted Evans in the preparation of the bibliography, and that may be the first indication of the “anyone can do this” attitude that has become an earmark of magic’s bibliographical literature.  (Overall, though, it looks as though the bibliography was carefully and competently done.)

Not long after that was published, there appeared, in the pages of the periodical Magic, a bibliography compiled by Ellis Stanyon, with, I gather, Arthur Margery’s help.  From a lack of familiarity with the bibliography and the material listed, I cannot speak about most of it, but I know this much:  the Professor Hoffmann section is a very inferior thing.  Stanyon is well known as a performer and as a writer on magic.  Margery is well known as a performer and as a bookseller.  Just what their qualifications were to produce a bibliography remains unknown to me.

So, from the above, it looks as though a pattern was emerging.  The bibliographers were largely magicians, collectors, and booksellers, in two areas of knowledge that were in their infancy:  modern bibliographical thought, and the literature of magic. Oh, I know that magic literature dates back to at least the sixteenth century, but the literature did not really start growing in a meaningful way until around the mid-nineteenth century.

I think it would be unfair to say that those people didn’t know what they were doing.  As I said, the Evans bibliography was well done — though of course it is rather limited in its usefulness today. But the Stanyon bibliography was seriously flawed.

When Frederick Jessel produced his 1905 bibliography of playing cards, he was probably miles ahead of any other bibliographer that the world of magic had seen.

I suppose that there was one more strange thing about the magic-book world that I should mention.  Somehow, as already noted, the magic world became one with an immense literature.  But equally weird, just about everyone involved became a “collector.”  They did not simply assemble “working libraries.”  They “collected.”  I am talking about early magicians — say after Modern Magic appeared in 1876, when the flood of literature really began.  Everybody wrote books, and everybody inscribed books to other magicians, and everybody hung on to everything.  There was always a high sense of “this is important.”  It was what comprised the entire culture of magic, and it was particularly emphasized in the “collecting” aspects of the field.

I have not done any study on it, but I imagine it would be hard to find a professional magician or leading amateur, who does not consider himself a collector.  It is almost impossible to avoid.  If you look at some of the major collectors, many of them turn out to have been professional magicians.  Examples:  Milbourne Christopher, Jay Marshall, Stanley Collins, Houdini.  Recent magic auctions of possessions of prominent magicians further underscore this:  Bruce Cervon, Dai Vernon, Billy McComb.

I imagine that magic is not unique in that respect, but I believe it is in the small minority of professions where collecting stuff relating to one’s profession is widespread.  We probably have more lawyers in California than most people believe (something like 200,000, I think) — and I seriously doubt that more than a handful collect material relating to their profession.  In fact, I suspect that there are more attorneys collecting magic books than there are who collect law books.

Well, I think that concludes this post.  In the future, I may elaborate on some of the topics broached here.

—Tom Sawyer

Thursday, November 22, 2012

About 1538 words.

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