51k1580djwl_sl500_From time to time I will be posting about the books, people, films and performers that have inspired and shaped my thinking. Today it is James Randi’s Flim Flam. I have had my copy of this seminal book for over twenty years, and it still inspires me to this day. It is not just about the contents of the book, but also about the way in which I came to possess my copy….

In my early twenties I was studying psychology at University College London, and spent my summers trying to earn a living as a street magician.

One day I wandered into a bookstore and came across Flim-Flam. Written by James Randi, the book was a treasure trove of skepticism, with chapters on all sorts of fascinating topics, including fake psychics, fairies and parapsychology. I was hooked and really, really, wanted a copy. There was just one problem. The book was expensive (it was an American import), and I had very little money.

I kept talking about the book to my then girlfriend, and she eventually came up with an interesting idea. She suggested that if the first £2 from each street collection were devoted to a ’Flim-Flam Fund’, I would be able to afford the book after about two weeks.

I pointed out that it was a great idea, except that I was only just making ends meet and couldn’t afford to lose the money. That’s when she explained the second half of her plan. She had worked out that if I ate just porridge and fruit, and drank only water (with the very occasional cup of coffee as a treat), I would be OK health-wise and could survive on a small amount of money. She reasoned that I might have a miserable couple of weeks, but would end up with a book that I really wanted.

So I did it. For about a fortnight, the first £2 came out of the hat and into the FFF. Each day I pretty much survived on porridge, fruit and water. Two weeks later I proudly walked into the bookstore, and bought my copy of Flim-Flam.

I still have that copy. In fact, it is sitting in front of me right now. The book has played an important role in my life, and set me thinking about studying for a PhD into the psychology of deception. Not only is it a wonderful read, but it reminds me that sometimes you have to suffer a little to achieve what you really want. On the downside, every time I open the book I get a funny taste of porridge in my mouth.

What book has changed or influenced your life, and why?

26 comments

  1. I just wanted to say what a wonderful story Richard.

    I remember about 11 years ago reading “The Giant Within” by Antony Robbins – I felt like I was reading it quite passively and did have a go at a few of the exercises. I was a sceptic regarding NLP and all that mind-body stuff.

    One morning I had an incident at work where a very stressed woman I was working on a project with, began shouting at me. For the first time ever in this kind of situation I stayed really calm and felt nothing but compassion for her and focused on calming her. It felt incredibly powerful not to be reactive in a negative way, but rather act positively. I remember thinking – how did I do that? And then remembered what I had been reading that week.

  2. Adrian Desmond’s biography of Huxley, for firing up my scientific renaissance – as I like to call it…..

    And way back, a strange little book called ‘Oddities of Heat’ by Herbert McKay, that cheerfully told you how to blow up bridges with gun cotton. Part of a rare series I still collect.

    There are loads of course, but the above two were the ones that went ‘ping’.

  3. I just ordered Flim Flam. Golly – with the postage over £20! for a used one. One-click is so dangerous.

    There’s only 7 left on Amazon, so I’m kinda assuming a killing by morning.

    😉

  4. What book has changed my life? I really can’t think of one that’s done that. However I can think of one book that has influenced my life in a big way – The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter. I loved that book so much when I was little that I asked for it every night for a bedtime story. I think I probably knew the words off my heart before I could actually read! Anyway, that’s the book that started off my love of reading and my life would be a heck of a lot less interesting if I didn’t like reading so much (though my bank balance would probably be considerably healthier!).

  5. Tracy, third party through Amazon – so I’m either legal eagle or stuffed. That said – Randi isn’t exactly giving them away at the current xchange 😉

    Tks for the link though. Next book, next time.

    Richard – tks for all the trouble you caused here.

  6. Christmas got be Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” and my birthday got me Singh & Ernzt’s “Trick or Treatment”. I’ll have to wait for christmas to get my hands on “Flim-Flam”. Or finish my PhD early and get a job…

    I can’t say a book changed my life, but the book on the 9/11 conspiracies by the editors of Popular Mechanics (I think) lead me to investigate the moon hoaxes, which lead me to Phil Plait’s webpage, which lead me to his blog, which in turn has lead me to a whole bunch of sceptic blogs and webpages, which then lead to more, etc.

  7. Thank you for the tip, I just got the book on amazon, and it was only $5!
    I watched some interesting clips on youtube- James Randi on Larry King live begging Silvia Brown and other psychics to take his 1 million dollar test. He is all the way at the very end of the “skeptic spectrum” to me. But certainly he has got many useful insights. Can’t wait to read his book.
    The book that changed my life: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
    Thank you!

  8. To quote World’s Most Annoying Man:

    “I used to be a Pagan
    Then I found Carl Sagan”.

    Twas The Demon-Haunted World for me. All the cliches about lightbulbs going off in heads (not even mine, it’s that good).

  9. Leon Lederman’s The God Particle changed my life. Not in a grandiose way like it made me see the light or anything, but in a subtle way. It was the first time I was exposed to science writing that I thoroughly enjoyed. It opened the door for me into the non fiction science world, from there I found the works of Hawking, Sagan, Einstein and eventually Dawkins, Dennett, Shermer and Plait.
    I no longer have that copy of the book as I leant it out a long time ago and con only hope it is still making its rounds somewhere. I did recently buy another copy of it though, saw it in a bookstore and couldn’t resist.

  10. What an amazing story, pardon the pun. Wonderful!

    As for me, I’ll echo the Carl Sagan-ites. But the 1-2 punch of Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot are my picks.

  11. Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould. I read it after finally having the time – post graduation of college – to really read slowly, for pleasure not necessity. I had a degree in geology but was out of work. I could not believe someone could write like this. I had to look up a lot of words in the dictionary but I was amazed – amazed at how LITTLE I learned in college about nature. It led me to question my belief about God and how life works and, of course, opened the door to a true understanding of evolution. I’ve never looked back. I am disappointed that I did not get to meet him before he died.

  12. Probably too early to say if this book will change my life in any significant way yet, but after reading it in early 2008 it certainly gave me a kick in the right direction. After being interested in psychology in a general way for years and being a closet atheist struggling in a Catholic dominated personal world this book gave me the confidence to start being more proactive in both these areas, searching out interesting stuff to read, podcasts to listen to, blogs to contribute to, etc. It is also the only book I have ever read that I felt moved to write to the author and thank him. The book in question………….Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown.

  13. I just stumbled across your blog on a google search and something about the words “Flim Flam” was too attractive to turn away. The first book that comes to mind for me–that changed my life that is—was perhaps A Farewell to Arms. My mother had it on her bookshelf when I was still a tweener, and there was something so distant and alienated (yet perceptive) in the narration. I felt an instant connection. It moved me.

    But reading all these comments, I’m awfully curious now about the psychology of deception. So many applications for that body of thought possible in my field.

  14. Big Bang- by Simon Singh not so much that actual book itself, though it’s great, but it made me want to read more about physics, astronomy, and led me to more Carl Sagan stuff.

  15. Boy Scouts Field Guide.

    After plenty of years sifting through knowledge that didn’t always have much practical use (I was an encyclopedia addict), I found that. All sorts of answers to “What if” and “How do I…” questions, and a nifty little motto that echoed my own outlook: “Be Prepared.”

  16. “Happiness in a nutshell”

    Read it when I was 13. It was in the psychology section of the school library. It in turn made me want to read other psychology books. Now I am a psychology student at uni. If I hadn’t read that book while I was feeling blue, I’d prob wouldn’t have even realised there was a psych section of the library, and prob be studying to be an astronomer instead.

  17. The Demon Haunted World by Sagan was the seminal book in my life. It inspired me to join all sorts of clubs, reads lots of skeptic blogs, write my own blog and generally be a pain in the ass to all my friends. Thanks Carl!

  18. Stephen: I am interested in your Letters in the Mail subscription. I am a high university English teacher, and that i believed this may be a good way to get my students to write responding on the letters. Having said that, I have to be certain that the topics of the letters might be appropriate for my students 9, 10, and 11th graders. Will you please comment on what the topics is going to be in general? Thanks.

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