Books & Manuscripts

The Finest Exemplar

By Steve Martin

R icky Jay is, of course, the finest example of his own collection. The swindler who never swindled, the conman who never conned, the cheat who never cheated, and mostly, the eccentric collector of all that is eccentric. Ricky was a clear-eyed and precise acquisitor, whose intellect guided him to each object: Every book, broadside, or armless wonder he gathered either reflected or expanded Ricky’s peculiar knowledge.

Some objects are hefty collectibles, like Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), the first book written on the subject of stage magic, or Hocus-Pocus Junior (1635), both now highly prized rarities. Some objects are so vulnerable they almost don’t exist. Gossamer ephemera, tissue-thin announcements of pig-faced ladies, so fragile their safe journeys from then to now seem impossible. Ricky understood that even the seemingly insignificant hand-out contributed to the whole history of the extraordinary.

When we lost Ricky, we lost the finest evaluator of his own collection. He knew the tendrils that relate one object to another, and the comings and goings of what fascinated us when, whether it was horses that could count or dubious spirits captured in early photography. As essential as cataloging is, Ricky could also hold each object in his memory. He could recite passages, name pages, and retrieve volumes and documents almost absent-mindedly from his bookcases, storage drawers, or files. Ricky’s legacy reminds us that a collection need not be an amalgamation of stuff, but a scholarly divination of what coheres and what informs, as well as a reminder that the almost unseen can be a valuable and colorful supplement to our human history.

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