Behind all of Ricky Jay’s smooth card shuffling and sleight-of-hand tricks lies a vast library — his own. Jay is a longtime serious book and print collector. He’s written a number of books inspired by his holdings of broadsheets and engravings, such as “Celebrations of Curious Characters,” about cannonball catchers, limbless jugglers, and banjo-picking birds. Jay is the subject of a new documentary, “Deceptive Practice.”
BOOKS: How big is your book collection?
JAY: At one point I had read every book in the house but now there are thousands and thousands. I am a sucker for the book. I collect in three or four major areas. I have books on magic and unusual entertainments. I also have books on remarkable characters. Probably the largest is on con games and swindles. Then I have more modern things.
BOOKS: When you say remarkable characters, who would make the grade?
JAY: For example, I just bought an 18th-century reprint of a book I couldn’t afford, an extraordinarily rare book that was first issued in 1635, “The Old, Old, Very Old Man” by John Taylor about Thomas Parr, who claimed to have lived to 152 years old.
BOOKS: When did you start collecting?
JAY: Maybe 30-some years ago when I would open for rock ‘n’ roll bands. On tour, I would spend my days in each city visiting print shops or bookshops. I did that for years. I built my collection buying these things for really little money and enjoying the process. The person who guided me in that was Persi Diaconis, a magician who became a remarkable mathematician and statistician. He and Ron Graham published “Magical Mathematics,” about the math behind card tricks.
BOOKS: How would you describe your tastes as a reader?
JAY: Most anything that catches my fancy. But to be honest these days much of my reading is books by friends. I could read nothing other than David Mamet’s works and have my plate full forever.
BOOKS: Who are your other writer friends?
JAY: I don’t know how I do this without it seeming like name-dropping, but Errol Morris, Paul Auster, Art Spiegelman . I have “Here and Now,” Paul’s published letters with J.M. Coetzee. I have John Strausbaugh’s history of Greenwich Village. Bruce Wagner’s novel “Dead Stars” is really disturbing and terrific.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
JAY: On my nightstand there’s a pretty wonderful book, “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem” by M.H. Abrams. He was a great professor at Cornell University, someone I knew and admired. He wrote this book when he was 100. I’m also reading “The Blue Book” by A. L. Kennedy. It’s very unusual. There’s a state-of-mind reader in the novel, which might be why a writer friend recommended it. I’ve also been reading Robert Walser’s stories. I’m interested in those because of this tiny calligraphy he wrote in. He was born in Switzerland and wrote a number of novels and stories, then was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent his last years institutionalized. These days he is starting to be considered an important writer. There’s a new edition of his stories, “Microscripts,” with illustrations by Maira Kalman.
BOOKS: Has reading played a role in your work?
JAY: There’s this tradition of young magicians, really magicians of any age, going to magic shops and being sold the latest effect. When I was a kid it seemed to me that if you wanted to do something different it would make more sense to look back than to do what everyone else was doing. I started looking through old books for material. Also, in creating the magic that I do I often use literary themes. I’ve used pieces by Damon Runyon, Shel Silverstein, and others for inspiration. I kind of live immersed in this crazy world of books and sleight-of-hand. It’s great fun to integrate these things.