To the Andra Moi Ennepe Museum to perform my bi-weekly charity audiobook work for Homer. I wonder with trepidation which biography of mine he will have me read to him today. Whatever it is, I’m sure the chapter he chooses will be designed to get under my skin like a poisonous tick. I swear he has one of his sons read these travesties beforehand and pick out just the right passages that will turn me into a frothing angerbeast. He never wants me to read the biographies that come close to the truth –- it’s always the ones that should be filed in the Fiction aisle. Does he have me read from 1599: A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare? Does he hand me a copy of Shakespeare The Player? No --- he wants to hear every word of Will In The World, which had me cursing like an Irishman after every other sentence. “I am amazed,” Homer said after the first ten minutes of this. “I didn’t think a book could ever be published in America that had so many instances of the phrase ‘ignorant fecking coont’ in it. No wonder it’s a best seller.”
The ignorant fecking coont whose book the Bard of Chios wants me to read to him today is Jonathan Bate, who has just published a book called Soul of the Age. "I hear it's excellent," says Homer. "Of course, if they wrote my biography it'd have to be titled Soul of Western Civilization, Bitch. Because, you know, I am." I agree with him verbally, all the while shaking my head "No." "Let's start then," he says. But first he apologizes for missing my birthday party. He always misses my birthday party. Ben says it’s because he’s jealous that I get a huge celebration and he doesn’t. “If the world knew my birthday, I would have to rent out a small country every year for the party,” Homer insists, before telling everyone when his birthday is. (It’s November 24th, which makes him a Sagittarius. Or as he calls it, a Centaur.) “And that’s the real date,” he adds when he mentions this to me. “Not like April 23rd. The 23rd isn’t even your actual birthday,” he points out, “it’s just the day people like to think is your birthday because it was the date you died.” And he’s correct, of course -- my actual birthday is April 22nd. “You should say something about this,” Homer muses. “You get so angry when your biographers get the facts of your life wrong, that it always surprises me that you do nothing to correct this atrocious error. You really should say something.” “I suppose so,” I say. But I never will. Personally I like the fact that the man the world thinks of as William Shakespeare has a different birthday than Will of Stratford. There is precious little of Will the glover’s son in Will (The Bard of Avon) Shakespeare, and since I long ago conceded to the world the ownership of the latter, everything associated with the former has become more and more precious to me. It’s like having a secret identity, except that in my case, Clark Kent never once shows up in any panel of the story.
“So,” Homer says, still talking about my birthday, “how many candles again?” We go through this every time. “545,” I say. Homer shakes his head. “Still counting those extra hundred years.” “I lived them,” I reply. “Technically,” he says. “We only have your word for it, Will. And personally, I’ve always thought that treating something as real which cannot be proven as fact is a sign of senility.” “How odd," I reply. "I’ve always thought that the Trojan Horse fit that definition as well.” Homer says something that sounds like “Touche!” but probably means “Up yours” in ancient Ionic Greek.
At that moment, there is a cough from behind us, and we turn to the door of Homer’s suite to see old blind John Milton standing there. “Can I join you?” Milton asks. Homer mouths the words “Can we stop you?” as I say, “By all means -- come in, John.”
He takes a step forward, and his two daughters appear, one on each arm. Together they gently guide Milton into the room and point him directly at a leather chair, which Milton hits head on. He yells “Whoa!” as he topples over, and hits the floor in an arm-waving leg-pumping heap. It is a pratfall that Buster Keaton would have envied. “What the hell was that?” he mutters as he gets to his feet. “Sorry, Daddy,” say his daughters in unison. Milton waves their apology away. He’s long ago resigned himself to the fact that this is their way of paying him back for all those years when he dictated Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained to them. “It is a kind of justice,” he says, “and I will take my punishment gladly. Besides, it’s not like they can actually hurt me, being a thing immortal like yourself. That’s yours, Will,” he adds, as if I didn’t know. He is always saying things to people as if they didn’t know them. I once heard him lecture Einstein on relativity. After about five minutes, Einstein left the room, came back with a tape recorder, recorded himself saying “Uh huh,” “Mmm,” and “You don’t say,” set each phrase to run every thirty seconds or so, pushed the Play button, and left the room with both of Milton’s daughters, who looked quite flustered (and quite happy) when Einstein brought them back thirty minutes later. Milton was still talking. “I think your theory is very solid,” he was saying as Einstein and the girls entered. “Oh very solid,” said Einstein. “Solid and firm,” said Milton’s daughter Anne. “And infinitely long,” said his daughter Deborah.
“So what are we hearing?” asks Milton. “Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate,” says Homer. "So many biographies,” says Milton with exaggerated wonder in his voice. “How many are there now, I wonder?” he asks. “I have no idea,” I reply. “But in fact it is an actual number,” Milton says. “In just the same way that there is an actual number which represents the amount of atoms in the universe, there is an actual number which represents the total of Shakespeare biographies which have been published since 1616.” “The biography number is probably larger,” says Homer. “Oh, only by one or two,” Milton concedes. “Are we listening to a book,” I ask, “or are we debating how many Bardographies can dance on the head of a pin?” “Oh book, book, by all means,” says Milton, and I proceed to read.