By Tom Interval
Anyone who enjoys studying or writing about history and historical figures seeks to connect with the past and its people on some level. For me, that level is deeply personal, especially when it comes to magic, magicians, and Harry Houdini.
Sometimes that connection is with the people and subjects being written about, and sometimes it’s with the authors. But one type of connection I haven’t heard anyone talk about lives in, of all places, ex-library books.
In general, library discards don’t have much value to collectors of magic literature, and for good reason. They often have damaged spines, rubber-stamp marks, stickers, glue residue, torn and dirty pages and covers, dog-ears, and unintelligible scribbles. Consequently, as a rule of thumb, I avoid purchasing ex-library copies.
But not always.
Some of these tattered texts have a hidden treasure within: the original stamped checkout card recording the dates when people borrowed the book. And if you’re lucky, the card will include signatures of the borrowers, like this one, which I found while continuing to catalog my relatively small magic library:
It’s from a juvenile biography about Harry Houdini found in many school and public libraries from the 1950s through the 1980s: The Great Houdini: Magician Extraordinary, by Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein. The book this particular card came from was in the Whitesboro Junior High Library in Whitesboro, New York, until at least 1969, when most of the borrowers signed their names.
But why do I care? As someone who has been obsessed with Houdini since childhood, maybe I see my own reflection in these signatures: little windows to an analog past when my own name appeared repeatedly on a school library checkout card. Or maybe it’s just idle curiosity.
For example, what ever happened to Mike Manger, who checked out this book three times? Was he writing a book report, or was he a magic and Houdini enthusiast like so many of us were at his age? Does he still enjoy reading about Houdini? Is he now an amateur or professional magician, possibly inspired by this book? And John Toukatly? He also borrowed it three times. Another book-report author or true Houdini comrade?
While these questions seem trivial, these former students are real people, now close to age 70. Maybe they’re not famous, respected, or even well-liked. Does it matter? Besides our fleeting or permanent interest in Houdini that binds us together over time, we all have something more important in common: humanity.
In memory of Houdini on the eve of his 95th deathday, I want to express my hope that everyone listed on the checkout card is healthy and thriving and that anyone reading this in the present or future has a firm understanding of life’s brevity and derives meaning from something more valuable than any book: the beloved people in their lives and an affinity for those kindred spirits they will never meet.