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Epstein, Joseph. A Literary Education

Joseph Epstein in this fat volume has collected selections from his journalistic essays from 1959 to 2013. In his Introduction he confesses, not over-modestly, to having been compared to Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt and Beerbohm, and called ‘the best essayist writing in English.’ Most of the nay-sayers gave him comfort in the fact that ‘most have seemed to me unjust.’ No false modesty here and none needed in the body of the book, which is lively, varied and not without humour.
Pride of place is given to his 2008 essay ‘A Literary Education: On being Well-Versed in Literature.’ ‘The effect of a Literary Education,’ Epstein insists throughout the book, ‘is not to gainsay the usefulness of many ideas, but to understand their limitation.’ There you have it: ideas are of limited use, whereas a liberal education ‘provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life.’ I happen to underwrite this, but I’m less convinced by his notion that ‘the major difference between Tolstoy and Flaubert is that Tolstoy worked from life, Flaubert from ideas.’ Neither do I concur with Epstein’s view that the first line of Anna Karenina is a ‘splendid sentence.’ To me it’s simply a damned lie and should have no place in the book.

But quibble as one might over particulars, my guess is that Epstein’s boast that he is ‘arguably’ the best essayist writing today in English is probably true. The essayist - as distinct from the ‘columnist’ - is today regrettably a member of a dying species. On the evidence of this book alone I would have to lament this fact. Open the book at any page and you will be hooked on the perspicacity of its author. ‘How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One,’ ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ ‘Old Age and Other Laughs’ and ‘The Death of the Liberal Arts’ for all their disparity of subject and tone contain a unifying message: life is richer and more mysterious than our ideas about it; it is also more joyful and intellectually liberating.

As with Tristram Shandy the author offers us a melange of his ‘life and opinions.’ Unlike Sterne’s Tristram, however, Epstein is politically and socially aware. He is not shy of putting the boot in to self-publicists and pretenders, to deluded ‘socialists’ and members of InCAR (The International Committee Against Racism), spending long pages on the case of Barbara Foley, who in 1986 was threatened with suspension after organising a riot preventing a speaker from getting a hearing at Northwestern University. Typically, Epstein cites a campus joke asking ‘How many members of InCAR does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘None,’ the answer is. ‘They don’t change it - they smash it.’

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