Rocks are our first treasures as little children. They seem to emerge from the flux, the keys to something, their interesting shapes reflecting the holes they left when something, some force, dislodged them from the planet. They also fit small hands, though not exactly, which helps you feel the contours of your palms. Smooth or jagged, dense or flaky, they both resist and gratify your grasp. Each one is an all-time favorite for an instant, but then you pick up another, and another, teaching you the range of what can please you. The playmate beside you, exploring the same pile, makes different finds, discovers different prizes. You set out your collections to compare them and both are appealing, but one is perfect. Yours.
And after rocks, as you grow and learn, come books.
This shop sold both, though rocks were its main business. I came across the store in Wallace, Idaho, a rambling little silver mining town, a couple of weeks ago on a spring road trip – the first such trip I’d taken in a year. Like so many of us, I’d been cooped up at home, obeying the guidelines, avoiding the dreaded bug, living a life of orderly confinement. It didn’t suit me. I crave uncertainty, the surprises that come when willingness meets chance. This formula for delight had been denied me as I brooded behind closed doors, an existence more virtual than physical, governed by algorithms in my phone and laptop. They know who you are, the masters of the internet, but only in a reduced and narrow way, perpetually pushing words and pictures at you that resemble ones you’ve seen before. You end up in an ever-tightening loop, suffocated by replays of past experiences. If you enjoyed X, you might like Y.
From the spot down the sidewalk where I parked the car, the rock shop looked to be my kind of place. Its façade was Victorian, a painted ornament, the woodwork a bit decrepit and out-of-joint, and the windows advertised “minerals” and “collectibles.” My wife and I went inside to browse. The long glass cases along the walls were packed with small geological amazements, more than my eyes could take in a whole day. Mystic green opals. White crowns of pointed crystals. And geodes, my favorites, homely on the outside, fantastic on the inside, like certain people. In the back of the shop, behind a curtain, was the Galaxy Room, a chamber of black light and bewitching luminescent stones, some of which appeared alive, organic, with spidery glowing veins and encrustations. It felt like a room that might cure me of some disease –- boredom, perhaps – if I dwelt there long enough. I shut my eyes and let the rays glide through me, cleansing and energizing my tired cells.
On my way out, I noticed a shelf of books. I traced an index finger along the spines, tilting my head to read their titles. Most of the volumes were from the 1970s and their topics struck me as eccentric. Casino gambling. Theater and acting. Hypnosis. Salesmanship. Psychic phenomena. One book was called The Power of Exploitation. I picked it up and opened it and read. It was a sort of manual or guidebook for aspiring psychological bullies, based on the rationale that in this world you either use people or get used by them. The tricks ranged from starting rumors to making threats and were based on alleged case studies of real people: Darryl V’s Six Rules for Perfecting Razor-Edged Fear Skill, Roberta T’s Subtle Climb to Power. I could have used such a book in junior high school but I wasn’t convinced that its gambits would help me now. Still, I tucked it under my arm, along with Noted Witnesses for Psychic Phenomenon, a collection of testimonies to the uncanny from scores of exalted historical figures including Socrates, Martin Luther, and Susan B. Anthony.
I wasn’t finished. I spied another bookshelf tucked away in a corner and raided it too. Remembering People, a warped old paperback by Harry Lorayne, “the Muhammad Ali of the Memory Business,” taught a method for matching names and faces, an aptitude that I have never possessed and may never possess if the world keeps wearing masks. (Idaho didn’t require them, as it happened, which let me relax and linger in the shop.) Also intriguing to me was Linking Rings, the true story of William W. Durbin, a nationally famous stage illusionist who’d served as a senior official in FDR’s Treasury Department. Durbin, who’d performed on stage as “The Past Master of the Black Art,” was placed in charge, quite fittingly, of the Treasury’s bond desk. In the middle of the Great Depression he’d turned sheets of paper into money — perfect! How had his story never become a movie?
One of the special virtues of physical books is that they lie scattered about the world in no particular order and a title of interest can be discovered at random, serendipitously. This doesn’t happen with digital books. They don’t turn up in a rock shop and speak to you, sending your thoughts down unexpected paths that then collide with other thoughts you’re having to set off explosions of meaning in your mind. I added a few books on acting to my heap as well as one on inducing hypnotic trances and one about high-pressure sales techniques and carried the stack to the counter, thinking this: Life is a performance, a great big show, and you’ve been asleep, Walt. Wise up. It’s not too late.” I glanced at my wife Amanda a few feet off; she was eyeing a garnet necklace in a case, unaware that I might be able to put her under soon.
When the shop’s lady owner rang up my oddball purchases, which came to less than forty dollars, she revealed their creepy secret.
“These books all belonged to Jeff Busby, a top magician whose prop shop was in the old warehouse behind the store. They’ve been here forever. His widow sold them to me. If you want to find more, I’ll make you a nice deal.”
“A dead magician’s library?” I said. I said it because of how strange it felt to say it, a series of words that I might speak only once in life.
“Yes. Does that interest you?”
My hunt resumed.
Of all the books I unpacked when I got home, the one that most grabbed me was The Moving Body by a French theater coach named Jacques Lecoq. He appeared on its cover, a man with tousled dark hair, curved elfin ears, and a wide expressive mouth – precisely the features you might expect from someone who ran a Parisian acting school focused on mime and clowning. His left hand was held up to the camera in the manner of an ancient pictograph, palm facing forward, thumb and fingers spread. In his right hand was an enigmatic mask with teardrop-shaped eye holes and slightly parted lips. This mask was what drew me. I wore one too sometimes, but only over my mouth and nose. We all did.
The book described the intense two-year curriculum of Lecoq’s exclusive school. This course of study, developed over decades, reflected its founder’s philosophy of acting, which was also his philosophy of life. He believed that the self emerges from wordless mystery, its journey one of silent physicality that eventually erupts in speech and brings forth comedy and tragedy. Masks helped make students conscious of this process, starting with the impassive “neutral mask” whose features are perfectly balanced and symmetrical. This mask should not fit perfectly, he wrote; the gap between it and the actor’s face fostered a state of primal possibility. The masks I’d grown used to wearing didn’t do this. They clung. They smothered. I now understood why I didn’t like them much. Instead of drawing me out, they pushed me in, even affecting the way I stood and walked. I’d noticed this in Idaho, where I’d not had to wear one for a few days; I seemed to regain an inch or two of height.
The next type of mask required by the course was called a “larval” mask. Each one differed slightly. They were lumpy, warped, abstract, with noses shaped like cucumbers and crows’ beaks. These masks imparted “pilot attitudes,” coaxing out certain emotions from their wearers and turning them into quasi-characters. I was familiar with this phenomenon. Out in public, behind my mask of fabric, I felt unusually vigilant and wary, my energy concentrated behind my eyes. I felt like a detective, or a suspect. If someone approached me, I grew uncomfortable, and it often appeared that they did too. Sometimes I pretended not to recognize people to spare myself from having to meet their gaze. This is awkward in a small town like mine, where the custom is to greet everyone you pass and pause and chat with those you know a little. I timed my outings to avoid such meetings, taking my regular evening walks at night. As Lecoq, who’d studied the subject, pointed out, one cannot use one’s own voice while wearing a mask. You speak as a persona, not a person.
The magician who’d owned the book – I’d forgotten his name by then – revealed himself to me through what he’d underlined. He seemed less concerned with the inward side of acting than with the reactions of the audience. This explained all the books on hypnosis in his collection, one of which I read after Lecoq’s book. When I opened it, out fell a plastic bookmark: a ruler marked with horizontal lines representing levels of entrancement measured by their attendant physical symptoms. In a deep trance the subject was paralyzed and numb, insensitive to heat and cold and pain. But what mysterious skill produced this state? The simple three-part answer disappointed me. First, the hypnotist informed the subject that they were about to be put into a trance. Next, they were told that they’d started to enter a trance. Then they were told that they were in a trance. Hypnosis, the book said, was all about authority. Authority and submission. The hypnotist was a commander, not a wizard, prepared to trigger in his subjects their natural human desire to take orders. I questioned this notion. Were people this obedient? Not all of us, the author conceded, just most of us. We wish to follow, to be led, to bow to teachers, sergeants, doctors, priests. The book didn’t analyze or judge this tendency, it merely declared it to be so. Hypnotists, the book insisted, are realists. Their power is knowing that we long to give them ours.
I closed the book. I was tired. My forehead ached. I went out for a walk, making sure to take my mask.
The deceased magician was a con man who seems to have gone mad as he grew older. I learned this from an internet search after finding his signature written on the title page of Experiences of a Psychichal Researcher, about the debunking of mediums and spiritualists. I typed in “Jeff Busby” and up came his obituary in Magicpedia, a web publication for professional illusionists. He was born in 1954 in Canada. As a young boy he found a book on magic and concluded from reading it that “I could lie and cheat honestly.” By his late teens, having moved to California, he was performing publicly. He won an award for a card trick he invented and began to write books on the history of magic, over fifty of them, along with hundreds of articles. He also worked teaching casinos to spot cheaters and advising US Naval Intelligence on detecting and countering deception. But he became corrupt:
“The first black mark on Busby’s career came from his abuse of his access to Lloyd Jones magic library in the 1970s. His career deteriorated when he was able to deliver only 8 of the 15 promised installments of The Braue Notebooks (re-edited versions of portions of Fred Braue’s notebooks) which had been published without the knowledge of Braue’s descendants. No money was ever refunded.”
Busby’s story darkened after this. To evade his angry colleagues, he relocated to Idaho, where he opened a mail-order business behind the rock shop. In time, he began besieging his old crowd with “paranoiac,” “bizarre,” and “ranting” emails concerning his battles with various grave ailments, including a stroke that put him in a wheelchair. The obit implied that his illnesses were exaggerated and his wheelchair ornamental. It also sharply dismissed his fevered claims that “a sinister cabal of other magic publishers and dealers” had conspired to wreck his business -- “something he actually managed quite capably on his own.” Death came early for Busby at fifty-nine. Among those who survived him were his wife, Vicky, “and his pet hedgehog Pokey.”
I read the obituary several times, astonished by both its pathos and its brutality. Professional magicians are a tough bunch, eager to fool others but loathe to be fooled. The rough treatment of Busby continued in the comments, the first of which was “He still owes me money.” The affair of the Breuer Notebooks still rankled, clearly, as did a host of other insider scandals involving Busby’s dubious claims of credit for certain innovative card tricks. The only praise from his peers was for his salesmanship, his power to manipulate and mesmerize. The dead man whose books on acting and persuasion had passed through walls of space and time to find their way onto the shelf beside my desk had proved a scoundrel, the conjurers agreed, but he’d sure known how to cast a spell.