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Magician whose standbys are ‘Moby-Dick’ and Bible

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Penn Jillette, the loquacious, towering half of the magicians Penn and Teller, has made an art form out of demonstrating how illusions are performed. In his newest book, "Presto!: How I Made 100 Pounds Disappear," he explains a trick few magicians, not to mention people, have pulled off. the Greenfield native reads from his book at 7 p.m. Friday at Brookline Booksmith.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

JILLETTE: "How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking" by Jordan Ellenberg. I'm also reading "Moby-Dick," and I'm always reading the Bible. I always have a Christopher Hitchens book going and read the physicist Lawrence Krauss for science. I am also reading one of Nicholson Baker's books of essays, "The Size of Thoughts" and John Updike's short story collection "Trust Me."

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BOOKS: Is math something you read about a lot?

JILLETTE: I'm very uneducated. I went to a bad high school and have no higher education other than a year of clown college. I always am reading nonfiction that will fill in stuff that I missed. It's a little late at 61 to be going for your high school diploma.

BOOKS: Which subject do you enjoy reading about the most?

JILLETTE: The wacky thing is I didn't read "Moby-Dick" until I was 40, but I don't know how anyone understands it at 18. I've been very grateful for my bad education because I got to learn stuff when I was ready to. I have "Moby-Dick" on all my devices. When I have some thinking to do, I play Bob Dylan or read Melville.

BOOKS: What is it about "Moby-Dick" that keeps you re-reading it?

JILLETTE: I'm a big Beats guy. I like my Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, and Melville is really the first Beat, the first to take the idea of a novel and make it something else. "Moby-Dick" goes into a play, into verse. I'm also drawn by its idea of cursing nature, of setting up oneself as a megalomaniac. I think "Moby-Dick" is a great book to read during the Trump candidacy. I also read the Bible the same way I read "Moby-Dick" but with less joy. I open it up whenever I have a few moments and read a few verses. I became an atheist when I was in junior high school. When anyone tells me they are leaning toward atheism and asks me which book they should read I don't recommend Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. I recommend the Bible. The Bible is such a part of our culture that it's very hard to get through one conversation without an allusion to it.

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BOOKS: Which is your favorite Nicholson Baker book?

JILLETTE: His first book, "The Mezzanine." It's astonishing. It takes place as one guy walks from his office to the escalator, about five steps. It's a book I used to give people and say, "Read this, and you'll understand me better.'' I gave it to a girlfriend a long time ago. She said, "Can you imagine someone being that messed up to think like that?" I thought, "Uh-oh.''

BOOKS: Any other book you've given as gifts a lot?

JILLETTE: Way back it was "Step Right Up!" by Dan Mannix about his life as a carnie in the '40s. That was a very important book to me when I was younger. Another book I recommend is Hitchens's "God Is Not Great." He was a friend and a hero of mine. When I was in the hospital about a year ago, I read that book, and it gave me hope, which I gotta say surprised even me.

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BOOKS: What do you read if you aren't up to Hitchens or Melville?

JILLETTE: When I can't focus, I read the opposite of light reading, "Eunoia" by Christian Bok. It's the shortest word in English language with all the vowels. He writes each chapter using only one vowel. I find it so beautiful. I find it very hard to read books that aren't great. My friend The Amazing Randi is like this too. People who aren't well educated tend to be very picky about literature. My lack of education makes me feel like every moment I spend reading should matter.

AMY SUTHERLAND


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