Thursday, March 24, 2011

Houdini and the Irreverence of Imagination

There was a period during my childhood where when my imagination was ignited by the idea of magic, I wasn’t thinking about Narnia or Middle Earth, but Harry Houdini.  I don’t remember why.  Stage Magic and Escape Artists were and still are largely a thing of the past (other than the rare performer who is more about Pink Floydesque light shows than human scale misdirection and contortions). 

I read every biography of the man I could find at the library.  And I remember I owned a weighty tome, a bible sized book, not even a kids book, on the history of stage magic.  It had a bright red book jacket and the simple, monolithic and dignified title, Magic.  The typography on the cover was in majestic turn of the century ornate lettering. 

Perhaps it was a fascination with larger than life figures, and the enthralling mystery of the past with its rough wool coats and horse drawn carriages.  That probably is it, because at the same time Houdini was enchanting me, I was fascinated with Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park, and Alexander Graham Bell who accomplished the feat of sending his voice through a wire to be heard in the distance.

I'm reminded of all this because this morning, during an internet ramble over groggy coffee, I saw that one of the top trending topics on Twitter was Harry Houdini.  Much as his name is still instantly recognizable and practically a synonym for escapology (yes, that is a word), being a Twitter meme just struck me as so randomly and absurdly improbable.  Turns out, it is the crafty dodger’s birthday today.  Ok, fine; but does that explain cresting a Twitter wave?  Is Houdini still that deep in the contemporary public’s imagination?  Is he still a cultural icon?  Do little boys dress up as him for Halloween?  Is there an action figure?

I put down my coffee, put on my Sherlock cap(when I was a kid, I didn’t need to rely on metaphor when I needed my Sherlock cap), and rolling up my sleeves set out to understand why, 85 years after his death, Houdini was topping the Twitter charts.  I scanned some biographical material, looked up various events and retrospectives going on around the world, but nothing really explained why suddenly the cybervoid was cascading with Houdini chatter.

I am a lazy and easily distracted investigator, and after 10 minutes or so of furious inquiry, it struck me that a Google image search of the man was just the instant gratification my frustration required.  Serendipity loves me, and I found that today, the sign hanging over the Google shop looked like this:

Mystery solved.  Sort of.

I’m not sure why Google, who often dresses up its logo for holidays, would actually cobble together a completely different logo for this particular historical figure.  Maybe whoever owns Google was also fascinated as a child.  Doesn’t really matter, I heartily approve of the colourful gesture.  I approve of a nod that makes millions of people stop for a moment and imagine the past; a nod that might spark a childhood memory of bright eyed wonder; a nod that reminds us of spectacles that didn’t require 200 million dollars worth of special effects.  It’s a delightful way to start the day.

I find myself, now, still casting back in memory to days of childhood enterprises when my pursuits required no order or reason.  I simply raced off after my obsessive nose in any direction that took me in the moment.  One week it might be steam engines, the week before that Charles M. Schulz.  Always, either the library or my household bookshelves had something to feed fierce curiosity.  Of course, trawling library stacks for answers was just as likely to result in abandoning a question when kismet intervened in the form of some completely unrelated book catching my eye.

It all gets me thinking about a series of articles in the British press over the last couple of days.  Some Minister was rallying for a reading challenge of 50 books a year for kids.  It was a goodwill publicity kind of thing, some easy sound bites— really, it’s not such a stretch to stand up and say you are generally in favor of literacy.  Only there was a backlash as the British government (and everywhere really) is closing libraries, slashing school budgets and social programs and in general making it more and more difficult for children to have books.  A number of prominent authors piped up to on the nature of reading, the motivations for reading.  They criticized the idea of quantifying reading, of making it seem a chore, a hurdle to overcome.  After all, a child who likes reading will plow through enormous numbers of books, many times the low bar 50 expectation.   

There was also much discussion on what children should read.  Recommendations of important novels poured in.  Serious people called out for the inclusion of non-fiction.  I appreciated Philip Pullman’s contribution that children need ready access to ample amounts of rubbish.  It echoes sentiments Michael Chabon has so often elaborated on concerning the value of pulp novels, genre fiction and comic books.  There aren’t many as literate as Chabon, so I am inclined to accept his wisdom on the matter.

Really what all the factions combined are getting at is children need access to a broad variety of books.  Rather than a curriculum, or seal of approval from educators, they need no one peeping over their shoulders or interrupting them as they follow their own spontaneous noses.

Of course, children also need to see adults reading, to know that it is a normal past time.  It also plants the seed to wonder what is in those books that they should so occupy the attention of adults.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where making rounds of the library and book store was as regular as many people hit up Netflix.  Keep in mind, this wasn’t the parental chore of getting a kid to read.  The adults were just following their own noses and I was left to my own devices.  No one told me to read, or what to read.  If someone had, they wouldn’t have been recommending Houdini biographies or Peanuts strips.  And I probably would have resented being told what I ought to be interested in and for how long.

What does any of this have to do with Houdini’s birthday?  Nothing.  But it does have to do with spontaneous curiosity generated by a logo, by random objects and events in our paths that ignite something and beckon us to follow.  It does have to do with the real magic books have to transport and transform, and to fill the mind while always increasing its capacity.

So Happy Birthday Houdini.  Thanks for all the memories.  And thank you libraries for having been able to keep up with my rapacious appetite.


  1. As always when I read you Ape, your writings conjure up a series of random comments from my lazy brain:
    1)Wizard of Menlo Park = Thief of Menlo Park. Tesla!! Tesla!! Tesla!!!
    2)The book/library problem in the UK and's an interesting little blog I check into regularly mostly because of my exile there.
    3)Just at lunch today my son, The Max, was commenting on how a) it was rude for The Big G and I to read at the table at lunchtime and
    b)paging through a magazine to find something to read is too painstaking for him, when all he has to do is type something into Google to find things to read. It grieves me to no end that my son eschews printed matter for reading 'onscreen', but I have to take some solace in the fact that he reads at all.

  2. I thought you were leading to this:
    How freakin' close we still are to sharing time with figures like that.
    When I was 9 I was reading Stanislaw Lem and Robert Silverburg. When I was 11 I couldn't get enough of the Hardy Boys.
    Walking on the beach, a girl is reading some poetry to her friends. "Are you a poet," my father asks the girl. "This isn't poetry," she snears, "these are my lyrics." (happened a couple of years ago, South of the border).