Day 298: Jesse Ball

We labor under tyrants. Sometimes we become tyrants ourselves. At present things look pretty grim. Some people like to look at the horrors of past centuries in order to paint a rosy picture of things today, but insofar as it is now possible for us to do better, and we are not doing better, things are quite bad. There is so much violence in the modern climate of reduced accountability—actions taken by millions of people simultaneously and trivially—that a different morality is needed in order for people to proceed in their day-to-day lives. If we ever needed Christian morality, and the answer to that is, I think that we never did (people could always be kind, whether Christian or no), then we do not need it now. People behaving generously in order to get a good deal later on in heaven is rather laughable, even if it is a swindle (no heaven). Why not instead behave to reduce the suffering of other living things without any reward but the life thus lived? And why not stop believing man is the center of the universe? That’s a small beginning.

Jesse Ball is author of the just-published The Divers' Game. His take is gloomy, but not off the mark.

Day 273: Stephen Dixon

I'm almost finished putting together The Man Who Signed the City, although final tasks keep multiplying as if by spontaneous generation. Here is a bit of Chapter 12, which features the writer Stephen Dixon.


Door opens on Stephen Dixon’s life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he is not Stephen Dixon, he’s Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father’s dental practice on the first. “He was an old-fashioned dentist,” Dixon recalls. “If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15, and you only had $10, he’d take $10.” When he works on his children’s teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school, Stephen’s mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes. So she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success, she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White’s Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater’s front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen. Without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months when he is implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon’s mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, “She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table.” Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.

Day 264: WWEGD?

The 20th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from No. 19.


46234a98-4884-406e-8e2f-a31dc91ddd78.jpg

WWEGD?

The wonderful, exquisitely weird Edward Gorey once addressed the clutter in his house by noting, “I can’t go out without buying a book.”

Perhaps the only thing he and I have in common. Alas.

For the last two months, I have been working on a piece about a subversive chef who has provocative ideas about local food economies, farming as stewardship, and the relationship between climate change and how we eat. I’ve spent hours hanging out with him and other food people and could write the story based on those conversations. But I seized on the assignment as an excuse to buy four books. It would have been five, but I already owned Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In October, my wife and I will venture to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch and photograph polar bears. The tour company sent a suggested reading list. I bought every book on it. Maybe I skipped one; I don’t remember.

When we travel, I always look for independent booksellers and keep a mental list of landmarks. Bookmarks. Booklandmarks. McNally Jackson in New York. Tattered Cover in Denver. Eliot Bay Books in Seattle and Powell’s to the south in Portland. Sundial Books in Chincoteague, Scuppernong in Greensboro, Labyrinth Books in Princeton. Baltimore? The Ivy. Washington? Politics and Prose or Kramerbooks, depending on the day. Lenox, Massachusetts? The Bookstore, “Serving the Community Since Last Tuesday.” I almost always buy a book or two when I’m in any of them, justifying my purchases as support for indie shops against Amazonian hegemony.

Sometimes I accumulate books with more purpose. Or more purposeful excuses. I own a couple of translations of Homer and have shelved with them seven more Homer-related works. Barry Unsworth, Christopher Logue, Alberto Manguel, M.I. Finley, Simone Weil. Two more lurk on my iPad. I harbor the woozy notion of someday writing an essay on books that orbit The Iliad and The Odyssey. When the time comes, I shall be ready. For a similar reason, I've been collecting works on walking. I have five unread novels by David Mitchell, witness to my intention to read all his work in chronological order. (He keeps writing them, so you see the pitfall there.) The inventory of books on quantum physics is a sign of another future project. That one might be a novel. A really nerdy novel. Or I might end up just knowing an odd assortment of things about string theory.

I have books I bought 25 years ago that I haven’t read yet. New York Review Books sent me five volumes last week—they just had a big sale—and I haven’t gotten to those, either. At least twice I’ve bought books, only to come home and find that I already owned them. I hope this happens to other people.

You’ve heard of those bracelets that say WWJD? At troublesome moments, you are supposed to look at them and hear an inner voice counsel, What would Jesus do? I should have one engraved WWEGD. What would Edward Gorey do?

I’ve bought books ever since I was a teenager, but I used to be better about not buying new ones until I’d read all those I had on hand. When I was in my early 20s, I brought a date home. She looked at the books stacked everywhere in my apartment and asked, “Have you read all of those?” I said, “Most of them.” She said, “You must be smarter than you look.” I stopped seeing her.

The only thing to conclude here is I just love buying books. I never buy anything that I don’t intend to read, and now that I’m a pensioner and man-of-leisure, I’m starting to work down some of my back stock. But if I stopped buying today, I’d be years reading all that I’ve accumulated. That’s okay. I might be sentenced to five years of house arrest someday; if it happens, I’m ready.

Next week, I travel to visit kin in Cambridge, Ohio. I have sworn not to return with any new books. Not one. You may doubt my resolve, but I don’t. I can do this.

It will help that Cambridge doesn’t have a bookshop.