Thursday, January 17, 2008

Look at the Eyes!

If you enjoyed Hitchens, Dawkins et al. on religion but prefer your atheism to be laced with humour, self-deprecating anecdotes and the empathy that comes from having been a god-botherer in his teens, then Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind is the book I'd recommend. I can imagine that he's not to everybody's taste, but personally I loved his TV shows right from the start, and this book, without being an extension of his performance, will contribute to your appreciation of it (assuming you appreciated it in the first place). But then, as a skeptic, I'm biased. There seems to be something about the Magic fraternity that encourages skepticism (Not just Brown but Houdini and even Paul Daniels!!); I suspect it's just that they know how easy it is to fake the miraculous.

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to explaining, in not too great a detail, how Brown performs his impressive feats of memory, "mind control," hypnosis and so on, along with historical accounts of the development of the various techniques he uses (there's an invaluable bibliography at the back, which, incidentally, includes a few of the books mentioned in the post below on why people believe strange things). The remaining third is dedicated to topics closer to his heart, one suspects, if only by the emotional intensity that can be detected: Brown doesn't get all didactic on the reader's ass, but he is keen to be informative about topics like Cognitive Illusions, Alternative Medicine, GM Foods, and the current crop of anti-religious writers (He's a very big fan of Dawkins). He doesn't labour his points too much, despite what one reviewer at Amazon says, although he does slip into the kind of anecdotalism that he accuses his opponents of. No matter. The anecdotes are usually very funny, and useful, too, particularly his account of how one of his mates avoided being battered by a drunk in the street simply by a bizarre change of conversational topic. And the book comes with an appendix that contains samples of correspondence Brown has received from nutters who've seen his show, including one from the reincarnated Jesus, who tells him, "I believe you and I have some work to do."


The book is out in new improved paperback form, i.e. smaller and less unwieldy. A great train read that I'm sure will make you laugh out loud while educating you, too. Can't be bad.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Don't get me wrong, I like DB even though he can freak me out so much that I can't always watch him. Nevertheless I like his approach (and I especially liked his show and tell programme on taking to pieces the fortune tellers etc, showing them his 'abilities' before revealing he had no special 'gift') and this book - which I have just started reading - is excellent. Good recommendation.

Anonymous said...

John, been meaning to buy this for a while. Along with my many other weird loves, such as darts, I'm a great fan of magic, and Brown is fantastic. Although Jerry Sadowitz is still my favourite.

John said...

Hi Stuart--

I think it'll be right up your street.

I particularly like the trick Sadowitz dedicated to the Queen Mother.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I know that! Is it as disgusting as his tribute to Kenneth Clarke? I like his debate with a Tory: "Where's all the money going to come from?" "It's going to come from you, you bastard." "Oh, I see, you're going to tax everyone out of the country are you, I see." "No, just you, you bastard."

John said...

ha ha ha. Yes, I like that one too.

The queen mother trick is the very first one on his video. It's easy enough to adapt to anyone.