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Book Review: A Literary Education and Other Essays

By (June 29, 2014) One Comment

A Literary Education and Other Essaysliterary education cover

by Joseph Epstein

Axios Press, 2014

 

New from Axios Press is another attractively-produced volume of essays by Joseph Epstein, who’s somehow managed for fifty years to seem like a relic from fifty years ago, the last remnant of a dying breed that has never been more ubiquitous. In column after column, in Commentary and The Atlantic and The American Scholar, he has been the first mourner at the funeral of a patient who made a last-minute recovery. When the elevator momentarily stops between floors, he’s the guy who turns to the other passengers and says, “We could all die here.” Then the car gets moving again, and everybody gets back to work.

It’s in this way that A Literary Education and Other Essays first achieves and then maintains its funereal – though always entertaining – tone; in essay after essay collected here (originally written mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s), Epstein is the quintessential gentle lamenter. “My age has released me from the need to be au courant,” he writes in an essay that’s ostensibly about his being 75 but is, like everything else in this collection, really about how irritating it is that the world is full of living beings,

I am no longer responsible for knowing much about Madonna, Lady Gaga, or the young woman who will inevitably follow them. With the grave yawning, I surely cannot be expected to read the 600-page novel about the assistant professor of English who discovers his father is a transvestite? The imminence of death may or may not concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson had it, but it does provide a few clues about how to expend what remains of one’s mental energy. My hope, contra Dylan Thomas, is to go gently into that good night.

You might think that the premise attitude here – that curiosity itself is a toil, and that any thinking person should be quietly happy when it finally atrophies – is pretty much beyond salvaging (and certainly not worth your time), but that would be over-hasty. Epstein proudly (and without apparent awareness of the pun) describes his “prosaic life” and pronounces a benediction on it all: “Although I was a wild young boy, somewhere along the way I chose to live the quiet life, and I have not regretted it.” But he is, almost despite himself, marvellously lively intellectual company, by turns flinty and opinionated (as when he writes of the 1990s New York Review of Books “[it] has become the representative intellectual journal of our age, with the important qualification that it has not been a great age, and that The New York Review of Books has done more than its share to diminish it”) and warm and inclusive, as in his wonderful and insightful piece on Jewish jokes:

In America, meanwhile, with Jews settling into affluence, Jewish wives have been the target of enough jokes to warrant establishing a special branch of the Anti-Defamation League. What does a Jewish wife make for dinner? Reservations. “A thief stole my wife’s purse with all her credit cards,” Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Rodney Cohen) used to remark, “but I’m not going after him. He’s spending less than she does.” What does a French wife say when making love? “Oui, oui, oui!” What does an Italian wife say? “Mamma mia, mamma mia!” What does a Jewish wife say? Harry, isn’t it time we had the ceiling painted?”

(“One could go on, and I think I shall,” he writes. “Ira Silverberg, walking up the stairs of a nearby bordello, discovers his father coming down the stairs, and, in dismay, asks him what he is doing there. “For three dollars,” his father says, “why should I bother your mother?”)

As the collection’s title indicates, there’s a generous amount of autobiographical material – some of it very richly rewarding – throughout these pages. There are touching essays about Epstein’s childhood and youth in 14th century Poland and at the University of Chicago, and running through all of these is the thread of how deeply reading and the world of books have shaped our author. At the heart of virtually every one of these smart, allusive essays is a simple belief in the power of books to create their readers. The standout piece “Educated by Novels” gets to the heart of it:

Why, it might be asked, does literature have to have a business at all? Is it not sufficient that it give pleasure, convey information, widen experience, provide flashes of insight? One reads the world’s finest novels, plays, poems, and in time one becomes a more cultivated person, which means somehow more refined, subtler, deeper, possibly even – though this might be pushing it – better. You are what you read; and culture, like heredity and cheap paint, rubs off.

Readers of A Literary Education and Other Essays will certainly feel themselves growing a bit more refined, and they’ll be at times mightily entertained as well. And as for the doom-accepting gloom that banks up like ground fog on so many of these pages, well, it might be aptly deflated by another of the Jewish jokes Epstein relates so well, this one the standard Jewish telegram: “Begin worrying. Details to follow.”