• August 2015

Joseph Epstein Gives Us "A Literary Education"

Looking for a great summer read? Look no further than “A Literary Education and Other Essays,” by Joseph Epstein.

From Publishers Weekly to The Wall Street Journal, critics tout him as possibly the greatest living essayist writing in English.

  • Patrick Kurp describes Epstein in his piece on essayists, “The Laughing Skeptics,” as “a contemporary master.”
  • William Giraldi in “The New Criterion” says: “… [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. …”
  • And Danny Heitman of The Wall Street Journal exclaimed: “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 isn’t over just yet.”

Packed with 38 essays describing a range of subjects, the book includes essays such as:

  • Memoirs of a Fraternity Man
  • You Could Die Laughing: Are Jewish Jokes a Humorous Subject?
  • What to Do About the Arts
  • New Leader Days: Can You Have a Political Magazine Without Politics?

Epstein comments that “A Literary Education” “is not united by the biographical or any other theme, but instead covers the range of my interests and preoccupations as an essayist over a writing career that spans more than 50 years: education, language, the arts, magazines, intellectuals, the culture.”

There’s no denying that Epstein has had an illustrious literary career.

Formerly the editor of the quarterly literary magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, The American Scholar, the long-time Chicago resident taught English and writing at Northwestern University for many years. His work has appeared in such prestigious national magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Commentary.

He has also penned 24 books, including the bestselling “Snobbery and Friendship,” as well as the short-story collections “The Goldin Boys,” “Fabulous Small Jews,” and “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff.”

And so you don’t have to judge this book by its cover, following is an excerpt from a 2008 essay included in “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature”

Sydney Smith, the early-nineteenth-century clergyman, wit, and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, once remarked that, if the same progress as had been made in education were made in the culinary arts, we should today still be eating soup with our hands. Quite so. Sydney Smith’s simile holds up all too well in our time. New ideas and reforms continue to crop up in education — from the installation of the elective system more than a century ago at Harvard to the advent of digital technology throughout the educational system in recent years — each, in its turn and time, heralding fresh new revolutions in learning. One after another, these revolutions fizzle, then go down in flames, leaving their heralds all looking like some variation of what Wallace Stevens called “lunatics of one idea.”

Meanwhile, things continue to slide: Standards slip, curricula are politicized and watered down, and, despite all the emphasis on schooling at every level of society, the dance of education remains locked into the dreary choreography of one step forward, two steps back. Education remains education, which is to say a fairly private affair. No matter how much more widespread so-called higher education has become, only a small — one is inclined to say an infinitesimal — minority seems capable of taking serious advantage of it, at any rate during the standard years of schooling.

Let me quickly insert that, when young, I was not myself among this minority. As a student in the middle 1950s, I attended the University of Chicago. No teacher in whose class I sat has ever remembered me upon meeting in later years, and this for good reason: My plan during my student days was to remain as inconspicuous as possible; I was sedulous only in the attempt to hide my ignorance, which was genuine and substantial. But more than mere ignorance was entailed. I somehow could not bring my mind to concentrate — to “focus,” as we say today — for long on many of the matters at hand.

A teacher in command of all the standard academic locutions—those “if you wills” and “as it weres,” with a mirabile dictu and other Latin tags thrown in from time to time at no extra charge — might stand authoritatively at his lectern setting out eight reasons for the emergence of the Renaissance. As he did so, all I could think was what induced him to buy that hopeless necktie he was wearing, and might that be a soup stain prominently in the middle of it, and, if so, made by chicken noodle or minestrone? At examination time, I recalled only five of the eight reasons for the Renaissance, and wound up with a C, which did not stand for charming.

Click here to read more, and to buy the book.

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