I should probably start the review by saying that I haven’t been a long term fan of Derren Brown. At the time of his Russian Roulette stunt I had him tarred broadly with the same brush as David Blaine. However I have had his book recommended to me a number of times and was interested to hear that his outlook on life is much like James Randi whom I greatly admire.
Tricks of the Mind is the first book by Derren to be aimed at a mainstream audience (He has previously written a couple of textbooks on close up card magic). It’s quite a hard book to nail down into any particular genre other than being a book about the things Derren is interested in, but covers three main themes. Firstly as you would expect it delves into the techniques that Brown uses to perform his tricks on stage. There are sections dedicated to Card Tricks, Improving Memory, Hypnosis and Suggestion, Mind Reading and determining when people are lying to you. To his credit he doesn’t fob you off and claim that by reading the section in question you will develop any significant level of skill in the techniques described, but he provides an introduction and background to each technique along with a few examples for you to try that should be sufficient to pique your interest for further study should you be so inclined. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is the extensive bibliography which provides an excellent resource for further study. Intertwined with the first section are semi autobiographical passages that cover the development of his own interest in hypnosis and magic which also chart his transformation from a very devout evangelical Christian to a committed rationalist sceptic. The third theme which makes up the majority of the final section of the book is a scathing attack on alternative medicine, the psychic industry and all other forms of superstition and dogma. He illustrates this section with some excellent examples of how fake psychics and healers can trick you with Barnum statements, Cold Reading and the Placebo effect. People expecting nothing more than a book about mind reading may be surprised by some of the content where he espouses Dawkins and Bertrand Russell. However don’t be fooled into thinking this book is a rationalist polemic in the style of Dawkins. Brown writes in a very light and witty style with a sense of whimsy that at its best is reminiscent of Stephen Fry. I laughed out loud at several occasions while reading. The best thing that I can say about this book is that it has started more conversations and requests to borrow than any book that I’ve reads since Freakonomics and for that reason I whole heartedly recommend it.