The city this time of year looks like something out of a history book. The landscape skews to black and white under gray December skies. All the color is artificial, the lights perhaps more flamboyant than they would have been long ago, but still familiar and traditional. What strikes me are the buildings: the rowhouses and century-old apartment buildings and the churches and temples and schools, all of them revealing their craftsmanship, their gargoyles and stonecarvings. The old structures are joyous when the trees drop their obscurantist leaves. In today’s society we are protective of urban trees, and no one speaks for the stones hidden so much of the year. The snow hasn’t arrived, there’s no slush, the sidewalks are bare and swept. Mentally we delete the cars, the cyclists, the joggers, and replace them with carriages and strolling pedestrians. Add some hats. Big poofy dresses. Yes, now we’re a hundred years back.

It can be a challenge, appreciating history, especially when walking down the sidewalk trying to answer an email on a BlackBerry.

History, or I guess I mean the past, provides an extra dimension to our lives. When I think of the genius of Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday, and who may well have been the best writer in the language [or best essayist, as Christopher Buckley plausibly declares in this wonderful New Yorker appreciation], I am in awe of how deeply he was immersed in all the great things that have been said and written. He could move freely in time, intellectually. He could summon a quote instantly, one that the rest of us would have to find via Google. He had read everything, had written several lifetime’s worth of prose. He’d been around the world and explored its many layers. That’s a rich and exciting way to live.

It’s a gift, to be someone to whom the ghosts speak.