Over a writing career of nearly four decades, Joseph Epstein has published various collections of what he likes to call “familiar essays,” usually on literary subjects. His agreeably approachable and fluid prose no doubt is the result of invisible but careful labor, his opinions are tart and confidently expressed, he seems to have read just about everything and quotes from that reading with daunting authority. On the other hand, he affects modesty but appears to possess little of it; he dances a fine line between amiability and smugness and occasionally lands on the wrong side of it.
“Essays in Biography,” which by my count is his 12th essay collection (as well as his 23rd book), is typical of his work in that each of its 40 pieces is smart, witty and a pleasure to read. It also is a rather strange book that only intermittently lives up to the promise in its title. Since no foreword or afterword is provided, only a list (without dates) of the seven publications in which the essays originally appeared, it is left to the reader to guess as to the provenance of the pieces, but many of them appear to be book reviews — of biographies, memoirs or other books about the lives of mostly notable people. But his present publisher has tried to inflate them into studies in biography, which they simply are not.
(Axios) - ‘Essays in Biography\" by Joseph Epstein
That Epstein has allowed himself to be published by Axios is, in and of itself, not a little strange. Axios is the publishing wing of the Axios Institute, which gives every evidence of being a feel-good think tank or research institute, and which in its “Mission Statement” rattles on at modest length about “values” — “Values refers to objects, states of being, ideas, ways of thinking, or people that we value or do not value and related beliefs, assumptions or attitudes about what is valuable or not valuable” — in ways that strike me as almost diametrically opposite to the skeptical, sardonic view that Epstein is inclined to take toward human self-improvement schemes. Indeed, Axios has recently published “Desires, Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough,” by Mortimer J. Adler, the late pop philosopher and “Great Books” propagandist whom Epstein kissed off in a memorable obituary for the Weekly Standard as “The Great Bookie.” Now, under the aegis of Axios, the two are bedfellows, albeit mighty strange ones.
Oh well, these are tough times for books and the people who write them, so any port in a storm. I do hope, though, that Epstein is privately embarrassed by the over-hyped jacket copy with which his new book is festooned: “Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably, it is Joseph Epstein. 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. . . . How easy it is, in today’s digital age, drowning in e-mails and other ephemera, to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose!” So be sure to have no purpose in mind when you sit down with “Essays in Biography.”