The Last Greatest Magician in the World (YGtCTO Words #11)

Book written by Jim Steinmeyer

For adults, non-fiction has always been the better seller over fiction (juvenile books are another story). Religious non-fiction is the traditional leading category by a wide margin. Humor and computers perform the worst of categories tracked by Publishers Weekly. Books related to the performing arts only [generic throat-clearing sound] perform slightly better. Jim Steinmeyer works within a non-fiction sub-category of the performing arts: magic. It is amazing that he makes a living.

This is all a long way to go to say that we are talking about books that you probably have to possess a subject-matter interest in the first place before you even realize that the things exist. Magic tricks are like dinosaurs- we were supposed to grow out of our interest as adults if we had not managed to turn it into a profession.

Steinmeyer writes books that merit the wider audience than they have acquired. More than that, they deserve an audience larger still, because they are fascinating portraits of America at the start of the twentieth century as experienced by some well-traveled souls. For that matter, any writer who can make the oft-told story of Harry Houdini fresh clearly has some chops.

The baseline requirement in non-fiction would have to be that the author knows what they are talking about, formally trained or otherwise. Steinmeyer has been designing illusions for decades and has studied the work of great magicians of the past, going so far as to present scholarly abstracts on the workings of particularly interesting historical curiosities.

Expertise does not require that the author subsume their personality or their opinion. If so, we would not have humor or political categories. But opinion seeps in everywhere, if only in the decisions about what to leave out or more blatant overt conjectures. In political books, we take offense when conjecture offends our sensibilities. Otherwise, I suspect the only offensive conjectures are those that seem obviously incorrect (to us anyway).

Steinmeyer has written about Harry Houdini, Chung Ling Soo, Charles Fort, Harry Thurston, and many others. In addition to their unusual professional pursuits, they were all idiosyncratic and intensely-focused individuals. Life choices and odd behaviors alone would beg authorial comment. Add to that Steinmeyer’s knowledge of the magical arts and we also benefit from his thoughts on how they did what they did.

All of Steinmeyer’s expertise would come to naught if he could not write and he certainly can. From the opening of his tales through to the end, he not only gets the story across, but also organizes matters in interesting and fruitful ways. Whether or not fiction outsells non-fiction, the best historical authors have learned much from the sweeping epics that dot the imaginary landscape. That cross-pollination takes the illumination of the human condition from fiction and creates a backbone for the historical facts to reach out and touch our current lives in ways only dreamt of by Tacitus.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 268 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.

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