"In the attempt to acquire empirical knowledge, I have accumulated thousands of dice over a period of decades. They are of myriad size, shape, and color and daunting variety: birdseye, bullseye, doughnut, barbudi, poker, baseball, golf, crown and anchor, bell and hammer, drugstore, razor, brushed, feathered, weight, hits, missouts, tops, shapes, polyhedrons, teetotums, and rough-cut unnumbered cubes. They come from diverse sources: generous friends, dealers in collectibles, distraught gamblers ready to embrace a new calling. They are fabricated from different materials, but the vast majority are made of celluloid.
In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt formed a substance from a homogeneous colloidal dispersion of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, cotton fibers, and camphor. It was a substance of great tensile strength capable of resisting the effects of water, oils, and even diluted acids. Hyatt's brother called it celluloid, and it became the first commercially successful synthetic plastic. It was cost-effective to manufacture and could be produced in a variety of attractive colors. Heated until soft and molded into shapes, it became a substitute for products fashioned out of ivory, tortoiseshell, and horn. Perhaps it is best known for its use in motion-picture film, where its volatility has resulted in the destruction of a vast percentage of early footage. But it was also used to fashion removable collars, collar stays, knife handles, guitar picks, piano keys, billiard balls, and, of course, dice.
These cellulose nitrate dice, the industry standard until the middle of the twentieth century (when they were replaced with less flammable cellulose acetate), typically remain stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose. The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode. Unpaired electrons or free radicals can abet the deterioration. The light and smog of Los Angeles, where my dice have resided for many years, are likely accomplices.
To record the death of my dice I called Rosamond Purcell, doyenne of decaying objects, photographer of taxidermological specimens, memorist of Wunderkammern. Her studio in Cambridge is bedizened with objects troves in various stages of decomposition: Rescued sheets of discarded metal and weather-beaten books that are transformed---by design, by vision, by respect---into objects of great beauty. She has come to know my dice, she has scrutinized them. She has analyzed every nuance of shape and color. She has at once halted their disintegration and catalyzed their resurrection. The dice have never looked better."
Ricky Jay is a magician, and a historian of magic, in addition to being a stage and movie actor. He has produced a couple of large books having to do with the history of magic and showmanship, but this is a small book, square like a face of a die, as are the color close-ups of the afflicted dice. "In the attempt to acquire empirical knowledge, I have accumulated thousands of dice over a period of decades," Jay explains. They are of all sorts of colors and patterns, but most of them are made of celluloid, the same celluloid whose decay has robbed us of countless early movies. Rosamond Purcell specializes in photographing the entropy that overcomes inanimate objects, like a book eaten by termites or rusting objects from the junkyard. Most of the large photographs here show the dice larger than life. The styles of their degeneration are diverse. The transparent ones show cracks through their mass, as if they have been dropped from a height. Some of the faces have crystallized, so that they look as if they have been sugared. Greenish mold seems to grow on some of them, while others seem to be bubbling from inside. Some of them have become as floppy as Dali's pocket watches, while others cleave crisply, leaving cubic fracture lines. Sometimes the spots are preserved, and sometimes it is the spots that have been attacked by time. They are certainly more interesting and more photogenic than they would have been when they were first manufactured.
It is to be expected that the text, in twelve small chapters numbered by pips on the dice, reflects Jay's wit and erudition. Here you can learn a lot of dice history, tales of loaded dice found in Pompeii, or of the conjuring dwarf who had no arms or legs, but manipulated dice in subtle ways. You can read about how God has struck down sacrilegious gamesters. Here is the legend of the Scandinavian kings throwing dice for territory, each throwing repeated boxcars until a surprising stroke (consistent with these pictures) gives a throw that beats a twelve. These are all good stories of the importance which many have felt for dice and their outcomes, and they are made poignant by the handsome photographs of just how chance and time have overtaken these humble cubes.