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Review: Essential Stewart James, MUM Magazine

MUM Magazine | November 2007

by Steve Beam

Let me start by saying that if you are one of the vanishing breed of magicians that likes to read, you should immediately mortgage your house, rent a truck with a dolly, drive down to your local magic shop, and haul both Stewart James in Print and The James File to your house.  (Make sure you deliver them all the way to your magic room as they are too heavy to move once you return the dolly.)  This 2700-page set of books is on my all-time top-twenty list.  In addition to the quality and quantity of the magic within, Allan Slaight’s labor of love serves as a fascinating biography of one of magic’s most creative, prolific, insightful, and troubled geniuses.

Stewart James was born and spent most of his life in Courtright, Ontario.  From there, he created classics of magic such as Further Than That, Miraskill, Safalaljia, and Remembering the Future. (DVD-learners won’t recognize the titles, but the tricks in various incarnations have probably found their way into your repertoire sans titles and the “original” originator.)  In the introduction to each section of tricks, Editor Allan Slaight packed more history and practical theory than most history and theory books contain.  Add to that the personal insight into what made Stewart tick and you have a well-rounded source of information that could keep one busy reading and experimenting for months or even years.   And of course, there are the tricks – over a thousand of them.

So, you ask, what do you do if you have already mortgaged your house for some nifty videos on card flourishes? What if the flooring in your home won’t support a 2700-page monument to magic?  What if your fingers are cramped from the flourish DVDs and you can’t turn that many pages?  Or, what if you fear being trapped beneath one of the massive volumes and literally being caught with your pants down in your “little reading room?”  What are you to do?

Fear not! Magicana, David Ben’s non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the art of magic, has just published The Essential Stewart James. (David’s non-profit is not to be confused with the non-profit ventures you and I have as a result of our magical escapades. David’s is what we financial types might refer to as an “intentional non-profit.”)  In this volume, Editor Allan Slaight has stirred the Stew in an effort to reduce it down to a compact but flavorful serving of Stewart’s best effects culled from the 2700-page warehouse.

How does one filter the gold from the gold?  Several years ago, Allan asked fans of Stewart’s material to comb through the series and send him a list of our favorite fifty effects.  You can find a partial list of the magic luminaries who participated at the end of the book including Bob Farmer, Bill Goodwin, Peter Duffie, Max Maven, Roy Walton, and Michael Weber.  Allan’s people (and Allan actually has people) then tabulated the resulting lists and compiled the consensus of the best fifty tricks.  (I notice that only twenty of my favorite fifty made it to the final list, demonstrating that no process can be perfect – but also showing that there is plenty more gold in the mother lode where these fifty nuggets were mined.)

What about the tricks?  Many reviewers list their favorite tricks from the books they are charged with reviewing.  In this instance, such a listing would be redundant since the book itself is a collection of favorites from the larger series. You will find that all of the tricks are semi-automatic as Stewart disdained what he referred to as “muscle magic.” And while there are many card tricks present, there are also tricks with ropes, rings, cups, balls, paper, strings, silks, and books.  Here you will also discover the rich principles upon which these tricks are built that have become the engines that inspired and driven many other magical creators into new territories. The reader will find himself adding new effects to his repertoire while at the same time marveling at the brain that conceived the methods.

I am delighted that the publishers chose to retain, enhance, and update the introductions to each of the tricks which made the larger series so readable. These add background and context while drawing attention to the highlights of the tricks that follow. Equally important are the essays which give you insight into the dark and tragic surroundings from which Stewart escaped into his own world, only to bring back discoveries that shed new light in ours.

While the volume lacks an index, those that are interested in finding something of Stewart’s would be well served to consult Bill Goodwin’s mammoth 122-page index that logged every twitch in the entire 2700-page colossus.  This index was a separate hardbound volume issued with The James File.

My only real criticism is the title and this is a personal grievance.If these 200 pages comprise The Essential Stewart James, the implication is that the years I have spent marinating in the other 2700 pages were nonessential or unnecessary.  Personally, I would have preferred the unobtrusive title, “The Jim File.”

This is a book that will stimulate your magical libido every time you re-read it.  If you don’t own the original series, you should forego purchasing that next deck of designer playing cards and instead secure a copy of this new volume.  If you do own the original series, you should stave off the inevitable hernia operation by using this new volume as your handy reference to the larger, heavier originals.

Perhaps I will rethink my above opinion regarding the titling of this volume.  Now that I have had time to dwell on it, The Essential Stewart James is, in fact, essential.


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