Saturday, September 29, 2007


The Book: Ricky Jay, JAY’S JOURNAL OF ANOMALIES. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001 (unsigned first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

I chose this book to write about ahead of time because Los Angeles, more than any other city in the United States -- with the possibility of San Francisco -- is a city of freaks.

I don't mean that unkindly, it's just a fact. Los Angeles is a city filled with people who deliberately set themselves apart -- through everything from body art to extreme weight-training to unusual performance skills -- and want other people to look at them. The man who tattoos his entire face, the woman who diets herself down to 87 pounds, the guy in the white turban who skates around with his guitar; they want us to look at them and marvel. And if that's not a modern-day freak show, what would you call it?

Ricky Jay's Journal of Anomalies is a compilation of a quarterly academic journal Jay published for four years, about the history of the unusual as entertainment. Jay, besides being the world's greatest sleight-of-hand artist, is a true scholar, and a collector of performance ephemera -- handbills, broadsides, posters and other memorabilia -- that serve as illustrations for this book.

In a nice bit of synchronicity, the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood is now showing "Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collections of Ricky Jay." I toured it on Thursday afternoon, after my visit to Westwood Memorial Park. Like The Journal of Anomalies, the exhibit gives us a look at what fascinated past generations: magicians, performing animals, physical deformities, automata and more. Among other subjects, the Journal explores the phenomena of hunger artists, crucifixion as entertainment, the intersection of dentistry with quackery and traveling entertainment, and the Indian rope trick – a discussion that gives a history of the illusion without ever explaining how it is done.

This book was a birthday present from my friend Gary in November 2001, and could not have been better timed. It's hard to explain just how comforting it was, against the backdrop of helicopter noise and fighter jets, to read about how promoters once shaved bears' faces and showed them as pig-faced women, and about how Matthew Buchinger drew beautiful artwork and fathered 11 children despite having no hands or feet.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

There's a great photography book on exactly this subject...

"Kustom" by Dewey Nicks

The black Santas and Davids of Youngwood Court, lowriders, strippers,body builders, Tony Duquette, Robert Evans, the Unicorn Witch lady!

It's a fun book and gives you a real taste of life in LA