A Literary Education and Other Essays

A Literary Education and Other Essays

by Joseph Epstein

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Who invented the personal essay? That is hard to say. The ancient Roman philosopher and cynical power broker, Seneca? The 16th century French philosopher Montaigne certainly brought it to a peak of perfection. There were many 19th century masters, not so many after that.

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? That requires no debate at all. It


Who invented the personal essay? That is hard to say. The ancient Roman philosopher and cynical power broker, Seneca? The 16th century French philosopher Montaigne certainly brought it to a peak of perfection. There were many 19th century masters, not so many after that.

Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? That requires no debate at all. It is unquestionably Joseph Epstein. He is not only the best living essayist; he is right up there in the company of Seneca and Montaigne, but one of our own, living in our era and dealing with our pleasures and travails.

Epstein is penetrating. He is witty. He has a magic touch with words, that hard to define but immediately recognizable quality called style. Above all, he is impossible to put down.

Epstein reads omnivorously and brings us the best of what he reads, passages that we would never have found on our own. How easy it is today, in the digital age, drowning in emails and other ephemera, to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Like any master essayist, however, this one brings us more than the shared experience of a lifetime of reading. He brings us himself, alternately scolding and charming, sparkling and deep, buoyant and sad, zany and wise, rebellious and conservative, bookworm and sports fan, clever and everyman, debunker and preservationist, deep into high culture, deep into low culture, curious, fresh, and settled in his ways. This is the friend we all wish we could have, the ideal, humane companion who is completely comfortable in his own human skin. Like Plutarch, he gives us life teaching by example, but with a wry smile and such a sure hand that we hardly notice the instruction. It is pure pleasure.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Four years ago, Axios Press approached Epstein (Snobbery; The Goldin Boys) about publishing any of his essays that had not previously appeared in book form and that he deemed worth resurrecting. Essays in Biography came out in 2012. Epstein, a prolific writer and author of 24 books and essay collections, here presents 38 additional pieces. They display his virtues as a polemicist: opinions that are strongly held and wittily presented, and a take-no-hostages approach to whatever arouses his ire. The topics are roughly: growing up in Chicago, the ills afflicting society and culture today, the parlous state of the academy and the arts, and his opinion of certain journals (mostly liberal) and people. A good place to start is Epstein's essay on Walter Cronkite, which is highly critical of the iconic newscaster. The author's general take on liberals is less appealing, not because what he says is wrong, but because his targets are so obvious. Nonetheless, Epstein always gets the mind stirring and there are few better reads than these essays. There's a place in society for gadflies—Epstein's an exemplary one. VERDICT These lively works will appeal mostly to lovers of essays. Though Epstein slams the New Yorker, readers of that magazine are among the ones who will enjoy him.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Publishers Weekly
Epstein follows up Essays in Biography (2012) with another collection of provocative and beguiling thought pieces. The six selections grouped under “Memoir” comprise an informal autobiography that takes the author from his Chicago boyhood to his current life as an obit-reading septuagenarian. In one of the book’s best essays, “A Virtucrat Remembers,” Epstein relates how the liberal advances of the ‘60s turned him off liberalism; he dismantles a polemic against neoconservativism that was published in Dissent in 1973—only to reveal that he was the angry young man who wrote it. A number of these essays grow out of omnivorous reading. From books about the rising popularity of plastic surgery, Epstein deduces that plastic surgeons combine “the work of a sawbones with that of a shrink”—hence the essay’s title “Prozac, with Knife.” The range of his curiosity is exhilarating: he writes as insightfully on art critic Hilton Kramer and the New York Review of Books as he does on higher education and, in “What to Do About the Arts”—inspired by his years serving on the National Endowment for the Arts—on the decline of artistic standards in contemporary America. Though they span nearly 40 years, the essays are remarkable for their consistency of tone and abundant insights about fiction, poetry, philosophy, and sociology. Agent: Samantha Shea, Georges Borchardt Inc. (June)
The New Criterion, May 1, 2014 - William Giraldi
[Epstein] writes sentences you want to remember. . . . His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. . . . [They] have personality and style, yes, but they also have something to say, and that's the pivotal distinction between Epstein and his bevy of imitators. . . . What's more, his wit is unkillable.
The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2014 - Danny Heitman
. . . Maybe it's time for a 'Joseph Epstein Reader' that would assemble the best work from his previous books for old and new fans alike. In the meantime, A Literary Education inspires hope that Mr. Epstein's good run [referring to the author's 24 books] isn't over just yet.
COMMENTARY, June 2014 - John Podhoretz
Epstein's . . . A Literary Education and Other Essays . . . . is his 24th book. This volume confirms that Epstein is not only the greatest living American literary critic, but also the country's foremost general essayist. He is, almost singlehandedly, holding aloft the flame for what used to be the honorable calling of 'the man of letters.'
The American Spectator, June 2014 - Larry Thornberry
Joseph Epstein turns out the best essays-of the literary or familiar kind-of any writer on active duty today. . . . Those who've reviewed Epstein's work over the years . . . praise his humor, his erudition, his vast learning, and his elegance. . . . Epstein's writing, like most French desserts, is very rich stuff.
Kirkus Reviews
A curmudgeonly cultural critic collects a potpourri of his pieces from the past 30 years, most from Commentary and the Weekly Standard. Prolific essayist, biographer and novelist Epstein (Essays in Biography, 2012, etc.) never leaves readers wondering about much. He delivers fierce punches to the guts of all sorts here: writers he doesn't care for (Updike, Mailer, Morrison, Vidal, Roth, Rich—both Frank and Adrienne), practices he abhors in higher education (the death of the liberal arts, emphases on feminism and Marxism and various other -isms in the literature curriculum), publications he doesn't like (the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review), child-rearing practices he disdains (contained in a wild essay called "The Kindergarchy: Every Child a Dauphin"), poetry he doesn't like and sentences he hates. Such a collection inevitably leads to some repetition, so readers hear a few times about his college days (the University of Illinois, his transfer to the University of Chicago), his early days of being a liberal, his peacetime service in the military and his conversion to conservatism—a transformation occasioned in major part by the excesses of the 1960s and '70s. Epstein does not often communicate any sense of uncertainty; he dispenses opinions and decisions with all the conviction of a judge on an afternoon TV show. Things are so, he seems to say, because I declare them so. Still, his pieces inevitably entertain as well as educate—and/or annoy). He eviscerates Paul Goodman, some colleagues at Northwestern University (where he taught for decades), Maya Angelou and Spike Lee, and he declares that Dreiser and Cather surpass any subsequent American novelists. He also blasts the National Endowment for the Arts (he served the agency for a bit). Lots of erudition and bloody (right-ish) fun.

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Meet the Author

Joseph Epstein was editor of the American Scholar. A long time resident of Chicago, he has taught English and writing at Northwestern for many years. He is the author of 23 books, many of them collections of essays, and has also written for numerous magazines including The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Commentary.

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