It is December 24th, and to most Americans, that means Christmas Eve, but to me it means three days until my birthday. It is quiet here and sunny, so this seems like a good time to get something off my chest that has been bothering me for seventy-five years.
The simple fact is that I never got as many presents as my big sister, Barbara, who was born in August. She would have a birthday party in the summer and get lots of presents, and then four months later, she would get Christmas presents too. Not me. Oh, my parents would say that I was getting an extra-big present for Christmas plus my birthday, but I was not fooled. I could tell.
Now, my parents are gone, all my uncles and aunts are gone, my cousins couldn’t care less, and I haven’t had a real birthday party since I threw one for myself in 2003 to commemorate my seventieth.
I still remember one birthday present, my all time favorite. I must have been twelve or so. My father had taken me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library, and I had checked out a book containing all sixty of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels. I read it with delight and the next December, as my combined Christmas/birthday present, I got my very own copy. It was fat and stubby with a red cover, and I adored it. I read it over and over until I knew the stories almost by heart – The Red-headed League, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson, the Jezrail bullet, Mycroft and the Diogenes Club, Mrs. Hudson, and of course Irene Adler, the only woman Holmes ever loved. The fascinating thing about the Holmes stories is how non-violent they are. Indeed, there are even stories in which no actual crime is committed. Quite different from the modern genre, in which it seems murders pop up every few pages.
I even joined The Baker Street Irregulars when it was formed in 1946, an organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, among whom were numbered some distinguished literary figures of the Thirties and Forties. Four times a year I received the Baker Street Journal, filled with faux scholarly articles on Holmesian minutiae. Like all religious cults, the Irregulars were organized around a founding myth, in this case the shared pretense that Holmes was real.
My grandson, Samuel suffers from the same affliction. His birthday was Saturday, three days before Christmas, and wouldn’t you know it, his sister was born in August. I am always meticulously careful to get Samuel two presents at this time of year. No extra-big single present from me! Samuel has expressed an interest in Philosophy [he has just turned thirteen], and last year, I gave him an autographed copy of In Defense of Anarchism, so that years from now, perhaps after I have died, he will know who his grandfather was. This year I gave him a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. His father says he was delighted. [His father also said he was explaining to Samuel Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but I am not sure exactly what that means.]
Russell’s History was the first serious book of philosophy I read. I think I was fourteen or fifteen. I had read Irwin Edman’s two chatty books, Philosopher’s Holiday and Philosopher’s Quest, but I did not consider either of them very serious. It was a trifle startling many years later to join the Columbia Philosophy Department and discover that Edman had been a member. After reading Russell’s History I read his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy when I was fifteen or so, not too long before going to Harvard and launching my college education with W. V. O. Quine’s logic course.
Well, the sun is up, the stock market is open, and I am going to get a birthday haircut, always something of an indulgence since there is not much hair to cut.