Maarten Bosmans is a magician from Belgium who initially reached out to me a year and a half ago to tell me The Jerx was his second favorite blog. Now, I don't hold a grudge, but eat shit, Maarten, this is the best blog ever written.
Maarten is a huge movie fanatic (his favorite blog is scriptshadow.net) and he likes to create material inspired by movies.
He recently sent along an idea for a book test based on this scene from Good Will Hunting.
First I'm going to briefly explain his idea and his methodology which would work well in a stage or parlor context, and then I'm going to explain my ideas on a similar type of effect in a social or amateur magic presentation. Even if you're not drawn to this particular effect, you may find some ideas in here that you could use in some other context.
The Basic Idea: In a traditional book test your participant will think of a word or phrase and then you will tell them what they're thinking of. Simple.
In this version what you'll be demonstrating is a profound familiarity with a certain subject matter or series of books. Briefly, let's say you have 20 books piled on a table on stage. Your spectator will freely select one (true) and freely select a page (kind of true) without you knowing either (untrue). They will then read off the first four words on that page. You are blindfolded and/or turned away.
"The fireflies were all...," your spectator says.
"'The fireflies were all. The fireflies were all...," you mumble. "Oh...'The fireflies were all over the place as the sun came up.' Yes, that's referring to John Glenn as he reaches the Canton Island tracking point. That's The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe... page two-hundred sixty eight."
The Good Will Hunting Book Test - Do You Like Apples? Stage Version by Maarten Bosmans
I consider this a stage version because it uses props you would find in a stage show (forcing bags, folios, blindfolds—don't fret if you don't use these things in performance, neither do I, you'll see in the next section).
His basic method is to give people a free choice of book, followed by a limited choice of page number, and then you use a crib to determine what words come next.
Let's say before the show starts you ask your audience to write down a few numbers between 0 and 400 on individual slips of paper. They can write as many numbers as they like and these slips are dropped in a bag or a box. During the course of the effect, it will seem your spectator has a free choice of these slips written by the audience but really they will be forced to choose one with particular numbers on it using a clear forcing bag or an Amazebox.
So let's say they're forced a slip of paper with these numbers on it: 48, 183, and 349.
You are blindfolded and you ask them to pick up any one of 20 books (or more) that are on display, and to open the book to any page number they want from the "random" slip they chose.
Now, you'll know what book they chose (because you can see through the blindfold) and you'll know what page they're on by seeing if they open towards the beginning, middle, or end of the book.
Next, you need to access your crib. Maarten suggests using Banachek's Psychic Pad Folio or Force 4 by Wayne Rodgers. I don't know how either of these things work, but from context clues I'm guessing it's something you could open one way to look at your crib and open another to show just a blank pad. In Maarten's version he has the spectator say the first four words and then he writes down what the fifth word is on the pad (before going on to relay the rest of the sentence verbally) and he peeks the crib at some point before that. He also has a subtlety where he opens up the folio towards someone and asks if there's anything written on the top sheet (remember, he supposedly can't see). Perhaps there's a word on it (from a previous performance) and they rip the page off for him. Then when he opens it towards himself the next time he's peeking the crib on what was just seen as an innocent blank pad.
From there you do the reveal in any way you choose.
Now... let's take a look at a different version.
The Good Will Hunting Book Test - Miss Misery Amateur Version
While I like Maarten's idea, I know that I'll probably never have an opportunity to perform something that used a blindfold, a folio, and some sort of switching/forcing device, so I wanted to work on a variation that didn't use those objects. The other potential issue with Maarten's version is that because it's a book test that uses your own books, they might just assume you have some strong familiarity with the books. And because the presentation is not about something supernatural, and actually is about having a strong familiarity with the books, then it might not be as powerful a trick as it could be otherwise.
So what I decided was to work on a version that didn't use any props I didn't normally have with me. And to try and do it in situations where I could use other people's books.
I've had a chance to perform this twice in the past couple of weeks and it went over very well both times.
The basics of the effect are the same as Maarten's with some small differences. I'm still going to limit their page selection and I'm still going to use a crib. But with this version you don't need to know what book they've chosen or what page they've turned to.
We're going to limit their page selection down to two pages per book, but in a way that I think seems pretty fair. You might say, "Unless they can open the book to any page they want, it's going to feel contrived and unfair." And, in a way, you're right. If you have a way to do a book test by allowing someone to open to any page in any of their own books, then that's certainly something I would prefer. But since I don't have a way to do that, we're going to have to use a bit of procedure for that part.
Here's a tip for this sort of thing: If you have to use procedure when something more straightforward would be more logical, then don't announce why you're doing the procedure until after you do it.
For example, don't say, "We need to come up with a random number of cards to deal, so I want you to roll these two dice and use the two digits to make a random number." You're giving people too much time to sit with the procedure and feel that it is a needlessly complicated way of determining a random number.
If instead you say, "Roll these two dice a few times and stop whenever you want.... Now I want you to use the two numbers on top of the dice to create a two digit number. If you had rolled again, you would probably have different numbers, right? I couldn't have known what numbers you would roll, and you didn't know what numbers you would get either, correct? So it's a truly random number, it's not a favorite number or a number that has meaning to you or a number everyone thinks of, correct?" And you get them agreeing to all this stuff that makes the number seem truly unknowable/unpredictable. "Now we're going to deal off this random number of cards...." See? Only now do you say what the number is going to be used for. And at this point you're already on the move. Things are progressing. It's more difficult for a spectator to think, "Well, why did we choose a random number that way?" because their mind is occupied with other things at that point.
We're going to use a similar technique to limit their page selection in a way that might not feel completely straightforward, but I don't think it feels anywhere near as limiting as it really is.
The Two Certainties Page Force
Here's what it looks like. You take a borrowed deck of cards and remove the 10s, Jacks, Queens, and Kings and give the spectator the number cards (Aces being 1s) to shuffle. They shuffle them however they like. Cut the cards. Remove three cards from where they cut. Arrange those three numbers in their head in any way they like to create a page number and turn to that page number in the book.
That's genuinely how it looks, and yet they will be forced to one of two page numbers in the book.
Here's the procedure (I came up with this myself, but would not be surprised if there is a precedent for it). You take a shuffled deck and openly outjog the 10s, Js, Qs, and Ks. As you are doing this you cull a 2,6 and 8 to the top of the deck.
Strip out the the outjogged cards, turn the deck over and place the face up cards on top of the deck. Spread through them, ostensibly to make sure you got all 12 cards out that you were trying to (the idea here is that you're removing the faces and tens so they just have the number cards). Spread the first three face-down cards (the 2, 6 and 8) and get a pinky break under them. Square the cards and lift off your face-up picture cards and the three face-down cards below them. Give the number cards to your spectator to shuffle. As they shuffle, you fiddle around with your cards and eventually get a break above the three face-down cards at the bottom of your packet. Transfer your cards and your break to a right hand biddle grip/thumb break.
Ask for the number cards to be placed on your left yand. Tell your spectator to cut off a packet of cards. Gesture with your right hand (in front of your left hand), for them to set that packet on the table. As they do this you pull your right hand packet back and as it briefly passes over the left hand and the three cards are dropped on the left hand packet (this is the John Bannon SWAK (Swindled With a Kiss) technique, I think it's probably more fooling because the cards in your right hand seem to be all face up). Now extend your left hand and ask them to slide off the three cards "from where you cut to."
They will have a 2, 6 and 8. As long at the books in play have less than 627 pages, they will be forced to choose either 268 or 286. (You could use 2, 8 and 9 and you'd be safe with books up to 828 pages.)
If you feel like you need to, you can retcon the number selection. You can imply that using the cards makes it truly random. And that maybe you could have guessed what numbers they would think if they thought of a number on their own. Or maybe the book tends to open to a particular page if they were just to riffle through it. I don't really know if it's necessary or not. I'm not sure if justifying it puts undue emphasis on it. Because there's a free choice of book, and because there is still a choice involved in how they arrange the numbers, and because they apparently came from a shuffled packet of cards, I probably won't attempt to justify the procedure unless someone asked why we did it that way.
I'm going to switch to first person now.
At this point I would walk into an adjoining room and put myself in a corner like the Blair Witch Project. "I'm not going to turn around or even look in your direction. You can watch and make sure my face is planted in this corner the whole time. I want you to peek at your cards and arrange the numbers in any order in your mind to make a page number. Then I want you to flip to that page in any book on your bookshelf and go to the first full sentence on the page and read out the first four words of that sentence. If any of the words give away what the book is, skip to the next sentence. Like if it says, 'Then Moby Dick said,' just go to the next sentence. I don't think Moby Dick actually says anything in that book, but you get what I'm saying. Try your best to shield everything from me and keep your eyes on me to make sure I never turn around."
This was the little speech I gave my friend the first time I performed the trick. I had been staying with her and her husband at their home in Pennsylvania. On the shelf in the room I was sleeping in were about a dozen literary classics. She was in the room while I was facing a corner in the hallway.
"'Or do you kiss,'" she said.
"Hmmmm. Uhm... oh... 'Or do you kiss my hand in the spirit I once let you kiss my cheek?' That's Estella in Great Expectations. Charles Dickens. Page... 268?" I said, as I turned around to face her.
(Earlier in the day, when she asked how I slept I said I hadn't been tired so I stayed up memorizing the books in my room.)
Where was the crib? I'll get to that. First, let me describe the crib. It isn't like Maarten's crib where you know the book and the page and then you're looking for the correct word. I didn't know the book or the page until she said what the first four words were. I then have my crib with all the four word phrases listed in alphabetical order. I just look down for the one that begins "or do you kiss" and look to see the book, page number, and rest of the line (which you don't have to get perfectly).
I created the crib on my phone. It took me about a minute per book. So I did a dozen books the night before in under 15 minutes. As I walk into the corner, the phone is in my shirt pocket. At this point in time I'm still holding the picture cards in my hand and my hands are spreading them, riffling them, cutting them, etc, as I've been doing this whole time. Once I get to the corner I pop the pop the phone out of my pocket and just hold it on top of the deck as I continue to spread and riffle the cards and making noise with them. From the back it just looks like I'm messing with cards, but I actually have the phone on and open to my crib. As soon as the four words are named I scroll to that line with my thumb and get the info, and then pocket my phone back in my shirt pocket.
Putting myself in the corner comes across as me being extra clear that I'm not peeking. But really I'm just hiding what I'm actually doing. As I turn back towards my friend, my hands are just holding the deck and my eyes are closed as if I'm thinking. It looks very innocent.
If you have good eyesight, obviously a printed crib could work very well too.
Now, the second time I performed this I actually did it impromptu and crib-less. I was in a friend's bathroom and they had three books in there. I took a shit and memorized the six force lines.
Later, when asked to perform a trick I had them select three cards and one of the people there took them, sight unseen, and went into the bathroom and closed the door. Everyone else was outside the bathroom with me.
"Take the cards from your pockets and create a three digit page number," I said. "Open to that page in any book in there and read the first four words on the page to me."
"'Finally after what seemed,'" the person on the other side of the door said.
"Hmm," I said, "That's in a couple of the books. Can you read any other three or four words on that page?"
"'I dropped it,'" she said.
"Oh, sure...ok...'Finally after what seemed.'... 'Finally after what seemed like a forever of running, someone said, 'I think we lost them.'' That's from Wonder by RJ Palacio. That's on page...265? No.. 268, yes?"
It's strong stuff.
If the four words seem sort of generic, then I would have them read a couple other words off the page.
Yes, but Andy, won't they ask you to complete that sentence or another one in the book or something? If you really memorized the books, wouldn't you be able to do it again. Or just start reading off the book from memory?
That's only an issue if they're taking it all too seriously. If they are, I recommend this line: "I'm just kidding around ding-dong. It's a trick. I didn't memorize the books when I was taking a dump."
Once people know you well enough to know you're not trying to impress them with your mega-brain, they don't feel the need to challenge you as much.
The My Boy is Wicked Smaht Variation
I think using the spectator's books makes this very strong. But I'm also thinking of making a crib that includes every book I own on a shared google spreadsheet. Then when someone visits we can do a skype call with this "genius" friend of mine who seemingly has read every book ever and can remember almost everything about them. They select a book and page without me knowing and we ring him up. My friend says the four words from seemingly a random page from one of many, many books and he can end up finishing the quote, naming the exact page, etc. All he has to do is subtly scroll through the spreadsheet as we interact.
Even people who agree with my presentational esthetic often don't understand why I'd want to have someone else perform the trick. The reason is because I don't necessarily care if someone thinks I'm the one responsible for all these weird things. I like the idea that I can be a tour guide showing them strange objects and experiences and introducing them to these weird people who are capable of some unbelievable things.
I'm also thinking of setting up a crib for books in a certain section of the local public library. Like a section that doesn't change much. Like books about ferns or something. And then I can say how I used to be obsessed with ferns and read every book on them endlessly as a kid to the point where I have them almost memorized.
I think the page force is almost strong enough to do the effect with one book. And then you'd have to only memorize two sentences. Although maybe not. I don't know.
If I had a legit stage show, here's what I'd do. People would be encouraged to bring a book with them to the show. The first 10 or 20 people who had books with them could place them on a table on stage before the show began. As people filed in, I would be onstage flipping through the books very quickly. My phone in my pocket would be shooting video and I would make sure to stop at the three force pages briefly in each book. Then someone backstage (Joshua Jay or whoever I have working for me) could make up the crib from the video during the first half of the show. And then you'd have a really kind of mindboggling book memorization feat with borrowed books with "random" page numbers generated by the audience.
One of the greatest footnotes to Good Will Hunting is that Elliott Smith was nominated for an Oscar for Miss Misery, a low-key indie-pop song. It was up against My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion from Titanic, and was such a contrast to that bombastic, overplayed, shitty song.
Smith didn't want to perform at the Oscars originally, but he felt compelled to because he was told the song would be performed whether he sang it or not. As he said, "Yeah, at first, I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ But they said if I didn’t sing the song, they’d get someone else to sing it ... like Richard Marx. It was like, ‘Well, then again ... I could do it!'"
There's really no good quality video of his Oscar's performance, but here's the best I could find.
(Here's the original. (You lose the harmonies on the Oscars version.) If you don't know Elliott Smith, he's one of the best singer-songwriters of the past 50 years. Heavily influenced by the Beatles, his voice and guitar playing are amazing and often chill-inducing. And pretty much every album is a masterpiece. (You won't have trouble catching up with his catalog. He killed himself in 2003. Or did he?))