The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini was my first read of Non-Fiction November 2020. I do enjoy reading non-fiction and yet I just don’t seemed to have turned to it as often this year. This month I’m making an effort to change that and what better way to start than with a new biography of the legend that was Harry Houdini.
Summary of The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini:
Nearly a century after Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, he feels as modern and alive as ever. The name Houdini still leaps to mind whenever we witness a daring escape. The baby who frees herself from her crib? Houdini. The dog who vanishes and reappears in the neighbor’s garden? Houdini. Every generation produces new disciples of the magician, from household names in magic like David Copperfield and David Blaine to countless other followers whose lives have been transformed by the power of Houdini.
In rural Pennsylvania, a thirteen-year-old girl finds the courage to leave a violent home after learning that Houdini ran away to join the circus; she eventually becomes the first female magician to saw a man in half on television. In Australia, an eight-year-old boy with a learning impediment feels worthless until he sees an old poster of Houdini advertising “Nothing on earth can hold Houdini prisoner,” and begins his path to becoming that nation’s most popular magician. In California, an actor and Vietnam War veteran finds purpose in his life by uncovering the secrets of his hero.
But the unique phenomenon of Houdini was always more than his death-defying stunts or his ability to escape handcuffs and straitjackets. It is also about the power of imagination and self-invention. His incredible transformation from Ehrich Weiss, humble Hungarian immigrant and rabbi’s son, into the self-named Harry Houdini has won him a slice of immortality. No one has withstood the test of time quite like Houdini. Fueled by Posnanski’s personal obsession with the magician—and magic itself—The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is a poignant odyssey of discovery, blending biography, memoir, and first-person reporting to trace Houdini’s metamorphosis into an iconic figure who has inspired millions.
Star Rating for The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini: * * * * (four stars)
This isn’t the first non-fiction book about Harry Houdini I’ve read. I’ve also picked up both The Secret Life of Houdini and Houdini and Conan Doyle. Luckily, each book approaches Harry Houdini from a different angle, so I still feel like I’ve learned something every time.
The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini probably isn’t the best place to start when you’re first starting out learning about Houdini; I’d recommend The Secret Life… for that. However, once that base knowledge is in place, this is a really interesting look at what Houdini meant to people generally, as well as the (many) specific magicians whose original inspiration came from the iconic escapologist.
I always appreciate when non-fiction books talk to you about how they conducted their research – the people they talk to, the author’s first impressions of them, the books they couldn’t get hold of, the museums they toured, etc. It seems to connect you to the subject matter, as though you’re journeying along with the author, and provides a jumping off point if you wanted to explore different paths on your own.
Joe Posnanski seems to have spoken to all the most renowned Houdini ‘experts,’ and toured all the relevant museums and sites. He has even had a tour of David Cooperfield’s personal museum, guided by the man himself! No stone has been unturned and no avenue unexplored in the making of this book.
I feel I should clarify that The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is still very much about Houdini, however. I had worried before starting it that this would simply be a list of modern magicians’ careers with Houdini being used only as a loose connector. This is not that. We do hear about what prompted other magicians’ love of magic, but not for long and it very much isn’t the focus. It’s more about their feelings towards Houdini, which are then linked back to Houdini’s personality, choices or famous stunts.
It never got repetitive and was so much more than just a list of modern magician’s quotes about the man. I also appreciate that, despite the author freely admitting he loves Harry Houdini, his flaws and shortcomings are also explored at least somewhat objectively. Apparently Houdini was actually fairly crap at card magic, for example, despite lauding himself as the King of Cards.
In short, I probably wouldn’t recommend this as your first foray into Houdini, but I would pick it up as your second. It will debunk some of the more prevalent Houdini myths you may have heard whilst also providing a fascinating insight into Houdini’s legacy – both mainstream and magical.