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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 is unquestio 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.


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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 is unquestio 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.

30 review for A Literary Education and Other Essays

  1. 5 out of 5

    Vesna

    There was a technical glitch on my Mac that wiped out my notes so the impressions will be general. Epstein is an eloquent, witty, and erudite essayist, and this is one of his last collections of already published essays in different magazines and journals. He taught English literature and advanced prose composition at Northwestern University (also famed for the ever-popular courses in Russian literature by his colleague Gary Saul Morson) which is reflected in the related sections/parts 4-6 on th There was a technical glitch on my Mac that wiped out my notes so the impressions will be general. Epstein is an eloquent, witty, and erudite essayist, and this is one of his last collections of already published essays in different magazines and journals. He taught English literature and advanced prose composition at Northwestern University (also famed for the ever-popular courses in Russian literature by his colleague Gary Saul Morson) which is reflected in the related sections/parts 4-6 on the Arts (4), Education (5), and Language (6). All three essays on Language are especially superb that I read them more than once. Each is about different elements, that is, the words, sentences, and essay as a literary form. A must read for writers and readers alike. These essays are marred, however, by repetitive criticism of "multiculturalism" on which he makes some valid points (e.g., the discussion of the literary merits of the texts are often overshadowed, in fact according to Epstein almost completely ignored, by the priority to contextualize them politically) but also leans too much conservative, insisting on the Western canon, to be entirely defensible and persuasive for my taste. That said, a reader who disagrees with some of these views like myself, should not skip these essays as they cover a wide range of other issues written with Epstein's remarkable knowledge, perception, and experience. Moreover, his views are nuanced and far from simplistic; otherwise a reader would not be able to understand why, in one of the most thoughtful essays on Americanism I read that intelligently argues against both vulgar jingoism and the blind/outright rejection, he poignantly concludes with an immigrant couple from Eastern Europe (and whose citizenship in real life he sponsored) as the best he can see for the future of his beloved America. Another highlight are the essays in part 7 Magazines, a tour de force in intellectual (and at times critical) history of several cultural magazines, conservative, middle-of-the-road and liberal (Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, The New Yorker). At different stages of his life, he contributed to each, following his own life trajectory from a young radical through his liberal period to the current moderately conservative stage. He is also a master of "personal essays" as evident throughout the book, and in Parts 1-2 they are written in memoirist style yet also reflecting on issues and events of interest to all. Part 3 Culture is probably the most uneven, but there are some absolute gems, showing a wide scope of interests as well as his wit at its best. For example, in his essay on boredom, one is amazed how versatile and rich this topic can be, from different classifications, to philosophical treatments and its centrality in some novels such as by Sartre, Moravia, Goncharov... to Joseph Brodsky's famous 1989 commencement address at Dartmouth College on this subject. And, add to it Epstein's humor sprinkled at times, it was a delightful reading (and learning) experience as is the case with many of his essays. The last part 8 Intellectuals is the weakest and odd in the selection of personalities such as Walter Cronkite, but I suspect these are leftovers as his essays on some truly eminent intellectuals, especially in the literary world, were already published in his previous collections. That last grouping is easily skippable unless someone has particular interest in reading about, for example, the cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg, and similar. Had it not been for some unevenness in the essay selections and occasionally conservative stands (I must emphasize that these are moderate and not pervasive in this book) with which I personally cannot find any affinity, this would be a stellar 5/5 for me.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ci

    Being a publicly - and self-celebrated essayist, the author writes with a breezy and erudite style, more of a New Yorker confidence instead of a pedantic earnestness. A few of his essays are insightful and edifying, while the others are acerbic cultural observations. His first essay is perhaps the most insightful on on education. By quoting Professor Becker “too much in formal education has to do with quick response, with coughing up information quickly, and not enough leeway is allowed for refl Being a publicly - and self-celebrated essayist, the author writes with a breezy and erudite style, more of a New Yorker confidence instead of a pedantic earnestness. A few of his essays are insightful and edifying, while the others are acerbic cultural observations. His first essay is perhaps the most insightful on on education. By quoting Professor Becker “too much in formal education has to do with quick response, with coughing up information quickly, and not enough leeway is allowed for reflection and brooding in the thoughtful way that serious subjects require", the author rightfully points toward the massive and profound failure in the education system. A few essays ruminating on old age and death are amusing and warming. I found his biography rather too heavy on the raw stuff to be palatable, and these biographical details casts a long shadow on his present view on things and people. A superbly fitting New Yorker essayist on past and present city lives. *** PS: adding an excellent review of this book An Essayist of the Old School – The Los Angeles Review of Books http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/ess...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Herzog

    I've long been a fan of Mr. Epstein and have read all of his books of essays both familiar and literary. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Epstein has become a troglodyte. It appears that about the time Richard Nixon resigned from office, his politics changed from leftward leaning to strongly right leaning. Some of the essays in this book come off sounding poorly because of that change in politics - exactly what he accuses the left of. When he avoids the political slant and concentrates on I've long been a fan of Mr. Epstein and have read all of his books of essays both familiar and literary. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Epstein has become a troglodyte. It appears that about the time Richard Nixon resigned from office, his politics changed from leftward leaning to strongly right leaning. Some of the essays in this book come off sounding poorly because of that change in politics - exactly what he accuses the left of. When he avoids the political slant and concentrates on memoir, language or biography, the essays in this volume are mostly as enjoyable as ever.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shiloah

    Finally finished! 1.5 years later. Several essays in this compilation were at least 5 stars. I learned a lot. Didn't agree with everything, but I appreciated the "journey" (a term he loathes). Finally finished! 1.5 years later. Several essays in this compilation were at least 5 stars. I learned a lot. Didn't agree with everything, but I appreciated the "journey" (a term he loathes).

  5. 4 out of 5

    David James

    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 w 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.’

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rose

    Very interesting essays on a number of subjects (quite a few of them book reviews). They make for great reading even if you don't agree with some of his premises and conclusions. (I was a little put-off by his statement in the preface about all the praise he receives,but I am glad that didn't stop me from reading the book). Very interesting essays on a number of subjects (quite a few of them book reviews). They make for great reading even if you don't agree with some of his premises and conclusions. (I was a little put-off by his statement in the preface about all the praise he receives,but I am glad that didn't stop me from reading the book).

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tom Veenendaal

    The worst of Joseph Epstein's collections published with Axios Press. You are better of reading any of the other 3 (Essays in Biography, Wind Sprints & The Ideal of Culture). Because I have read thousands of pages of his writings, it is no surprise that I often find Epstein repeating himself, but here he repeats himself with large frequency within the same collection. There are 5 essays on higher education, and you really only need to read 1 of them to know just about everything Epstein thinks a The worst of Joseph Epstein's collections published with Axios Press. You are better of reading any of the other 3 (Essays in Biography, Wind Sprints & The Ideal of Culture). Because I have read thousands of pages of his writings, it is no surprise that I often find Epstein repeating himself, but here he repeats himself with large frequency within the same collection. There are 5 essays on higher education, and you really only need to read 1 of them to know just about everything Epstein thinks about the subject. Politically, he basically believe that nothing good has happened in America since the 1960s. His constant and increasingly conservative political pronouncements, usually not at the forefront so much, become a little irritating in some essays here, even self-righteous. In other collections, Epstein can be very free spirited and accepting, but in these essays every man with politics similar to his own is praised, and those who differ mocked, not always very convincingly. He puts down Gore Vidal more times than you can count, and praises Edward Shils so much you want to put this book down and read him instead. Even Epstein's favorite quotes return a little too often. Finally, the personal essays that open this volume are some of his weakest and most indulgent. Really no surprise, since this book collects essays not previously compiled. A Line Out For a Walk is Epstein's best collection of personal essays, and what you should seek out if you are interested in those. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, this collection contains some of Epstein's all-time best essays (like 'Who Killed Poetry?'), so is unavoidable for fans. Perhaps skim read this one. Some day, someone will put out a Selected Essays of Joseph Epstein, and it will be among the best collections of essays ever published in America. Until then, you might want to pick and choose. If you do, you can leave this one for later.

  8. 5 out of 5

    John

    Through his vibrant, biting, occasionally hilarious short strikes, Epstein builds a convincing case for the well-read life. While these essays are broad in the both their subject and era, they show Epstein's progression as a young boy, student, writer, editor, and professor. Under all of this was Epstein's life mission to be an intellectual, and if his career's work is any indication, he has at least partially achieved this goal. Epstein's case for being well-read, for searching out writings on Through his vibrant, biting, occasionally hilarious short strikes, Epstein builds a convincing case for the well-read life. While these essays are broad in the both their subject and era, they show Epstein's progression as a young boy, student, writer, editor, and professor. Under all of this was Epstein's life mission to be an intellectual, and if his career's work is any indication, he has at least partially achieved this goal. Epstein's case for being well-read, for searching out writings on deep concepts, for reading musty old collections of poems and stories, and for developing your character (excuse the secularism) through fiction is that it forces one to adapt, to remain intellectually agile, and to be well groomed for myriad situations. He does not advocate for filling one's head with knowledge only applicable at trivia nights and cocktail parties, but does place weight in the ability to converse with anyone about almost any topic. These are different ends with different means. One forces recall, the other reflection. In sum, this was a delightful collection. The sections on growing up, on culture, and on some of the great intellectual magazines, especially, were very enlightening.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Miller

    Not many books that I don't completely complete, this one turned into a skimmer pretty fast however. Epstein is certainly a fantastic linguist but an appalling essayist. To essay is to try, but Epstein is far too self assured to try anything - he already has the answer to everything. Not many books that I don't completely complete, this one turned into a skimmer pretty fast however. Epstein is certainly a fantastic linguist but an appalling essayist. To essay is to try, but Epstein is far too self assured to try anything - he already has the answer to everything.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    One caveat: Do not sit down to read this wonderful collection of essays without a notebook and a reliable pen by your side. I found that in almost every essay I found the names of writers, journalists, artists, musicians, and more that I wanted to research, to find their books and articles and such so that I might read them, too. Joseph Epstein seems to know everyone in the arena of books and literature, in Chicago certainly but also in other cities that were or are centers of culture and to whic One caveat: Do not sit down to read this wonderful collection of essays without a notebook and a reliable pen by your side. I found that in almost every essay I found the names of writers, journalists, artists, musicians, and more that I wanted to research, to find their books and articles and such so that I might read them, too. Joseph Epstein seems to know everyone in the arena of books and literature, in Chicago certainly but also in other cities that were or are centers of culture and to which intelligent people migrate. These essays discuss fields such as politics, arts, music, history and historical events and reveal details that only an insider would know. Epstein, who doesn't have an advanced degree of any kind, has managed to teach at the University of Chicago and other universities and colleges for a great many years. His students admire him, and he nurtures those with talent and helps promote their careers. Although, being an old hippie and a liberal, I disagree with Joseph Epstein's politics as they currently are; he was a liberal as a young man but has moved to the right as he's grown older. I actually found myself arguing with him as I read; silly, really, because he really couldn't hear me. But what a collection for a person with a fascination with books, literature, and the arts to read! As a Jewish woman who grew up in Chicago, born only 10 years after Mr. Epstein, I found his discussions of growing up in that city during the 1950s and 1960s so wonderful. I remember the restaurants he names, the clubs and organizations he critiques, and I felt in a way as though he were my older cousin, someone with whom I'd like to "hang out", as we used to say. This is the first book of Epstein's that I read, having found it at the county library just sitting there on a shelf, calling to me. "Essays! Get your essays here!", it shouted to me. I was unable to resist. I have read another collection of essays, Essays in Biography, that I'll review shortly. He's published more books and I intend to read those that call to me. But I doubt that any of the remaining books can top A Literary Education and Essays in Biography. If you decide to read these, please let me know what you think.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Annabelle

    2014 was a year of Somerset Maugham and Joseph Epstein. I cannot get enough of both. But I ended 2014 and started 2015 with Epstein. With this, his most personal book to date, I think. Again he mentions Lionel Trilling's joke about the English major (what regiment?). This collection of essays show just how outstanding a writer he is. Wry, very dry humor, conservative-liberal views (and proud of it), effortlessly self-deprecating. And judging by his notes on the subject, a man with very high stan 2014 was a year of Somerset Maugham and Joseph Epstein. I cannot get enough of both. But I ended 2014 and started 2015 with Epstein. With this, his most personal book to date, I think. Again he mentions Lionel Trilling's joke about the English major (what regiment?). This collection of essays show just how outstanding a writer he is. Wry, very dry humor, conservative-liberal views (and proud of it), effortlessly self-deprecating. And judging by his notes on the subject, a man with very high standards when it comes to writers and their work. Thank you, JE, for recognizing how art should never be dictated by ethnic, gender, racial and sexual politics! Note: This would have rated 5 stars, but I could not relate to the chapter on magazines.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Engle

    Though more familiar with Jacob Epstein than Joseph Epstein, I enjoyed this eclectic collection of essays ... Despite his self-confessed bias as a Jewish Conservative, Epstein dealt with such topics as Education, Journalism, Culture and Language in an interesting fashion ... His 30-year stint of teaching at Northwestern, his membership on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, and his early involvement with the "intellectual" magazine served as credentials for his pronouncements ... Though more familiar with Jacob Epstein than Joseph Epstein, I enjoyed this eclectic collection of essays ... Despite his self-confessed bias as a Jewish Conservative, Epstein dealt with such topics as Education, Journalism, Culture and Language in an interesting fashion ... His 30-year stint of teaching at Northwestern, his membership on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, and his early involvement with the "intellectual" magazine served as credentials for his pronouncements ...

  13. 4 out of 5

    Fernando Fernández

    I might be biased on this one, but, for someone who makes a living reading literature, such a strong and simplistic defense of capitalism and business without any caveats should make any informed reader cringe. Had he been born in the right decade, he would have been an eager follower of Mr. McCarthy.

  14. 5 out of 5

    James Keenley

    Joseph Esptein is the greatest living American essayist. This book is proof.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Heisey

    Terrific collection essays by a literary essayist of the first rank.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Some essays skipped because of lack of interest, on my part.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I didn't read all of every essay - some were too long or on subjects not of interest to me. I like the ones in Part Two: Memoir and Part Three: The Culture best. I didn't read all of every essay - some were too long or on subjects not of interest to me. I like the ones in Part Two: Memoir and Part Three: The Culture best.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth Bareksten

    Possibly one of the sharpest pens in the USA. Witty, bold and with great insights in the literary arts as well as the culture that surrounds it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    William McCammon

  20. 4 out of 5

    Poppy

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jim Williams

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dave Creelman

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jim

  25. 5 out of 5

    John Johnston

  26. 4 out of 5

    William Huber

  27. 5 out of 5

    Brigid

  28. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Sharon

  29. 4 out of 5

    Buddy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Greg

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