The Death of the Phonebook

Hey, do you know why you see magic tricks done with playing cards?

Like it’s one thing to do it with playing cards you brought, but once upon a time, the point of card tricks were that you could use a deck from someone in the room and show them tricks that were hiding in their, ungimmick’d deck. There was a trust and a demonstration, a skill that came about because the person who gave you the deck wasn’t involved in the trick. Anything you did was therefore an execution of pure skill and therefore, probably also actual magic.

(There was also, you know, probably all sorts of nonsense. You can gimmick decks, you can swap decks, you can plant decks in the crowd, whatever.)

When Ricky Jay spoke about the Cups-and-Balls, he gives an anecdote of someone doing the routine at a dinner table with wine glasses and a stick of celery as his wand, with chunks of champagne cork for the balls; the impromptu nature of the trick is an expression of mastery. No-setup tricks are a whole thing.

That means there’s a type of trick and groups of tricks, that rely on using everyday items. Playing cards are kind of waning, they’re as much playing devices for a few games people don’t tend to play, as they are ‘tools for magic tricks.’ Coins are great, if you live in a society with sensible currency. Sankey is fond of making tricks with pulltabs from soda cans, sugar packets and chip bags, trash you see in a common shared environment (though, you know, less so these days). One common device that used to be very common in magic shows and has gone on the wane, though, is the humble phone book.

Phone books are one of those great devices for magic tricks, because there’s a lot of things about handling them that just requires you to know stuff. You can lace a pair of phonebooks together and make them incredibly hard to pull apart; you can also tear one apart with relative ease if you’re aware of how to do it, which makes it one of those strongman feats that looks like it’s extremely difficult but is more a matter of knowing than brute force. But people interact with them so they’re aware of how big they are, how heavy they are, and how tough they are so they have expectations you can subvert.

or rather…

They did.

Phonebooks are getting smaller, and less common. In any given situation you’re less and less likely to have one around. They’re things for hotel rooms, and people aren’t as likely to have spares so ripping one up doesn’t seriously impede someone who had one for some reason. It means that there’s this whole school of artistry about these props that has to be remembered (because of its other potential applications), all while we move on and make sure we’re not forcing them into tricks. After all, if you have to introduce a phonebook, it stands out, now, as something really weird.

Still, there are some nice tricks involving them. I like this one, especially knowing how it’s done.

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