Michael Blackburn's ART ZERO


Travelling in the Midwest a few years ago I came across the case of a man who changed his name. This in itself is nothing noteworthy these days: film stars and musicians, after all, do it all the time, as do those tired of their given names, and many who are plain eccentric. In the latter category, for instance, I would include Haywood Ritter of Indiana, who in 1989 became Chicken Chicken Jones. I recall, also, a joke told me by a friend from New York about Joe Horsepiss who asked the judge to change his name from Joe to Dan, but that's another story and not funny to me now I'm no longer a 20-year old pot-smoker.

What intrigued me about Paul E Stankovitch was that he became Mr ISBN 187477840X: surely the first case of a man who voluntarily became a number. For those of you unaware of this form of code - an ISBN (which stands for International Standard Book Number) is the unique number which identifies a particular edition of a book. After the change Stankovitch insisted on the 'Mr' part, by the way.

Unfortunately I didn't keep the article from the paper where I read about this transformation, on account of being in a hurry and having other matters on my mind at the time. I did, however, and for some reason which I cannot remember, write down the actual number. The only other detail I can recall from the article was that Mr ISBN 187477840X worked for a local utility company who had not looked upon his self-appointed name-change with pleasure. Neither had the Inland Revenue Service at first. He also had a dog called Nixon, but he wasn't planning to change his name. It occurred to me that if the dog was one of a long line of hounds he could give him an ISSN - an International Standard Serial Number, like a magazine.

I occasionally thought about Mr ISBN 18747740X. What did his friends and family call him, for instance? Was he called 'Is' or 'Isbn'? Or 'Ice'? Did some of his workmates call him '40X'? Did ISBN serve as a first name at all? It wouldn't be a problem to his kids, if he had any. He'd just be plain 'dad' or 'pop'. But I can't imagine his mother or father calling him anything but Paul. Can you?

If he was an embarrassment to his friend and family, thay must be used to it by now. He's only a mystery to people who don't know him, like me. Why a book? Why not the title of a book instead of its number? Did he read too many books? Was he a local genius with no outlet for his creativity? Was he a homegrown Thoreau making a statement? Was he mad? Did he do it for a bet? Sometimes I muse on these things while I'm sat on a plane over Utah or the Atlantic.

I checked out the number on various databases and no book exists that fits. So he is unique. Maybe he is the book he's writing, so he is literally writing his own life. I like to think that's the case. At least, that's what I think on Thursdays.