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"The Real Work"

realwork.jpg2013 Reading Assignment: "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life by Adam Gopnik

Your Common College Reading is an introduction to college-level reading and discussion, and an introduction to the type of material common to seminar-style courses. You will discuss the required Common College Reading during Orientation (most likely on Tuesday, August 20). This discussion with your professor, classmates, and ALPHAs will constitute a small portion of your first grade in your First-Year Seminar.

The selection "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life" is the text that you and all the other students will read. You can read it over the summer or shortly before you arrive for Orientation; it should take you no more than an hour or two at most. The link above provides you direct access to the essay.

Why and How Was This Selection Chosen?
"The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life" by Adam Gopnik, was published in The New Yorker in 2008. It simultaneously represents a fairly high level of writing while taking as its subject matter a fairly accessible topic: magic, magicians, and the way they perfect their technique. Members of the faculty committee that chose the reading describe the essay as "an intellectual and philosophical perspective on magic told through a series of interviews with well-respected (but largely unknown) magicians as well as famous magicians like Teller (from Penn and Teller), David Blaine, and David Copperfield. Part of the essay's premise is that anyone can learn to do a trick, but 'the real work is the accumulated practice of performing the trick in a completely convincing way.' To learn magic, one must participate in the tradition, practice the craft, and perform." That level of participation is analogous to what professors ask of their students, so the essay helps us to understand what we think of when we use the phrase "college level thinking". The essay touches on apprenticeship, dedication to mastery of technique, and what it means to be a member of a "disciplinary" community.

Study and Reading Guide

How to use the study guide
The following is a comprehensive guide to assist you in gleaning important facts and ideas from The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life. Your First-Year Seminar Advisor will, in his or her letter to you this summer, explain to you how to focus your reading for the particular questions that will be the basis of your seminar's discussion and use of the book during Orientation and the fall semester.

Before you read: 
You are about to read an essay called "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life" by Adam Gopnik. Active reading for college requires you to do some work before you actually begin reading. To prepare to read this article, please respond to the following:

  1. Have you ever been to a live "magic show" or seen magic tricks performed live? If not, have you seen such performances on TV or on the Internet? What do you remember most about these shows? Take a moment to write down some reflections, memories, or ideas.
  2. Using the Internet, look up at least one of the following and be prepared to share what you learn with your classmates:            
    • Jamy Ian Swiss
    • Color Vision Box
    • Dai Vernon
    • Penn & Teller
    • Magic Castle
    • David Blaine
    • David Copperfield
    • Marcel Duchamp
    • Twisting the Aces
    • Lance Burton
    • Doug Henning
    • Chung Ling Soo
    • Karl Germain
    • Juan Tamariz
    • Female magicians
  3. The author of this essay is Adam Gopnik. Use the internet to find out something about him. (Any online search engine should provide you with this information.) What is his job? What else has he written about?
  4. This essay was published in The New Yorker. What do you know about The New Yorker? Go to and find the "About" link at the bottom of the page. What does this tell you about the magazine? Based on The New Yorker's website and other information you find, who do you think reads this magazine? What kind of people does the magazine have in mind as its audience?
  5. Visit the websites of Genii ( and Antinomy ( where Jamy Ian Swiss publishes regular columns. Compare the audience for these magazines to The New Yorker.

While You Read
In college, it is important to read with a pen or pencil in your hand so you can mark passages that seem important (even if you can't quite articulate why they're important), confusing, or strange, and so that you can write down definitions of words you don't know as you read. You could also write down reactions to what you read, or a note about what something reminds you of from another context.

First, print a copy of the essay.

Next, read the list of questions that follows. It is important to read them all before you begin reading the essay so that you know what kind of information to be looking for.

  As you read, make notes about the following questions and anything else that you want to:

  1. In the first two pages, Gopnik starts to paint a scene related to magic. What are some of the ways that he describes magic itself? Circle any words, phrases or images that seem to describe magic as "secretive."
  2. What is a "subculture"? Gopnik writes, "Being a magician is membership in a subculture, where methods and myths can be appreciated only by initiates." Try to figure out the definition of "subculture" from context, but then use a dictionary to confirm that you are correct.
  3. What, according to Gopnik, is "the real work" of magic? Underline the place where he provides this definition. What do you think he means when he writes, "the real work is what makes a magic effect magical"? Try to put this in your own words, and write it in the margin of your essay.
  4. Can you think of another art form or perhaps a sport where "the better it is done the harder it is to see that anything has happened"? Explain.
  5. Who is Jamy Ian Swiss? What is his specialty as a magician? Gopnik says Swiss is "brutal in his beliefs." What are some of those beliefs?
  6. What is an "aphorism"? Find a definition of this word and write it in the margin of the essay, near where it is used.
  7. Does Swiss take pride in his work? Provide (by underlining) some examples of how he takes pride in his work.
  8. Swiss is a teacher of magic as well as a performer, philosopher, and scholar. What are some of his admirable qualities as a teacher? What are some of his less than admirable qualities?
  9. Gopnik provides a brief history of magic. Write a short paragraph (at the end of the article or on separate paper) that summarizes this history. Who "founded" modern magic and where and when?
  10. Why do you think Gopnik includes this history in the essay? How does it enhance his overall discussion of magic?
  11. Magicians are divided over the legacy of Houdini. Gopnik says there are "those who see Houdini ... as essentially a tourist trap ... and those who see Houdini's fame as proof positive that he did the first thing a magician needs to do, which is to grasp the mind of his time." Think about a pop culture figure (Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, One Direction, for example). How might they be similar to Houdini?
  12. Gopnik describes how Swiss fell in love with magic when he received a "Color Vision Box." What does Swiss learn about magic when he shows Sharon how it works?
  13. What are some examples of how Gopnik and Swiss compare magic to other forms of art? Mark these. Do these comparison make magic seem more legitimate as art? Why or why not?
  14. Who are Penn & Teller? Are you surprised or not surprised that their style of magic appeals to Swiss?
  15. Swiss talks about performing a "session" with Vernon. Why is his approval so important to Swiss? Can you think of other arts or trades where approval from a master is important?
  16. A magician has to engage in intellectual empathy. What is that?
  17. Who is David Blaine? Why does Gopnik refer to him as the "anti-magician"?
  18. David Blaine has become best known for "endurance art." He says, "I don't want magic that looks real. What I want are real things that feel like magic." What does he mean by that statement? Point out examples of his art that represent this viewpoint.
  19. What is Big Magic? How is it represented by David Copperfield?
  20. "Magic is the most intrinsically ironic of all the arts," Teller says. What is Teller's definition of irony? What's your definition of irony? And how might magic be ironic?
  21. Explain the "Too Perfect Theory." Does this theory have implications for art, literature, film, or theater? How about sports?
  22. Gopnik sees on Blaine's desk a picture of him at a magic camp, "as nerdy and needy as every other boy of the tribe." Why does he include this in the essay? Also, does he use the word "tribe" elsewhere in the essay? Why?

After you finish reading
Now that you have finished reading the essay, spend some time reflecting on it. Respond to the following questions, in writing.

  1. Why do you think Gopnik wrote this essay? What did you learn from reading it?
  2. Gopnik address several large topics in this essay including the history of magic, the philosophy of magic, and the division between traditional magicians and anti-magicians. Yet, throughout the essay he returns again and again to an airplane trip that Swiss takes with a twelve-year old boy to Las Vegas to see David Copperfield. Why do you think Gopnik chose to include this event? How does it benefit him stylistically as a writer? Also, does it metaphorically tie into the themes of the essay?
  3. Can you draw any comparisons between Gopnik's discussion of magic and learning that you have done in the past?
  4. Can you think of another example of a group or subculture with its own specialized language or habits? Do you participate in any kind of a subculture?
  5. Gopnik tells the story of Vernon searching out and locating a famous "cardsharp" who could cheat at cards by dealing from the center of the deck. Vernon learns the trick but doesn't do it for money or prestige; in fact when dealing cards "nobody knows he's doing it." For other magicians, this means that Vernon is "one of the few true artists left on earth, for whom the mastery of technique means more than anything that might be gained by it." Why master the "aesthetic of the clandestine" if there's no profit in it?
                            Here's another way to think about the "aesthetic of the clandestine." David Copperfield takes Swiss and the twelve-year old (along with a family of Russians) to tour his warehouse of magical paraphernalia. The warehouse is the size of an airplane hangar and contains one-of-a-kinds of all sorts of tricks including "nearly everything of Houdini's that matters." Yet, Copperfield has "no intention of making it public." Why collect all of this without the intention to share it with the public?
  6. Consider the following passage,
              We will ourselves both to overlook the obvious chicanery and to overrate the apparent obstacles (of illusions). Or we imagine that an elaborate bit of trickery couldn't be achieved by stupidly obvious means. People participate in their own illusions. That is why a magician's technique must be invisible; if it became visible, we would be insulted by its obviousness. Magic is possible because magicians are smart. And what they're smart about is mainly how dumb we are, how limited in vision, how narrow in imagination, how resourceless in conjecture, how routinized in our theories of the world, how deadened to possibility. The magician awakens us from the dogmatic slumbers of our daily life, our interactions with cards and hoops and things. He opens a door by pointing to a window. (15)
              What illusions are we complicit in during our daily life? How can we open ourselves to possibility?
  7. Swiss claims near the end of the essay that "we'll always need magic." Do you agree? Why or why not?
  8. Toward the end of the essay, Gopnik details an exchange between Swiss and Blaine. Swiss leaves the conversation frustrated. Gopnik writes,
              I could see him struggling with the times — with the anger of feeling a protégé being fought over but also with the sense, which every writer knows, of helplessness in the face of the new thing, of suddenly knowing what the real fringe is like, and how it feels when you get there. We are all magicians now. The same feeling that novelists had when first confronted with movies is shared by closeup card magicians confronting television endurance artists  —  the feeling that something big and vital is passing from the world, and yet that to defend it is to be immediately classified as retrograde.
      What's at stake for Swiss? For Penn & Teller? What is being lost? Why the anxiety over the future of magic?
  9. What questions do you have about this essay that you would like to raise during your seminar's discussion of the article?