ONCE MORE AROUND THE BLOCK Familiar Essays By Joseph Epstein Norton. 308 pp. $16.95

IN JANUARY 1918 Marcel Proust concluded a long letter to Andre' Gide with "Au revoir, dear friend, I have spoken to you only about myself, yet I think only of you." That is equally true of the writer of familiar essays, which is to say not true at all. The familiar, or personal, essay is a written monologue in which the writer addresses his readers as if communicating something of interest to them, and probably it is. What is certain, however, is that it is of interest to him. The essay is, in other words, a consignment of the writer's observations, thoughts, life to present and future readers, which, while it also contributes to the treasure chest of literature, gets things off his chest.

But the familiar essay, once a staple of civilized letters, has fallen on very bad times; the favorite form of writers such as Addison, Steele, Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Stevenson, and many others, it is now scarcely publishable. The familiar essay-writer nowadays has to be the editor of a periodical in which he can be his own publisher while hoping that a publishing house will eventually rescue him from the ambiguous role of samizdatchik. Thus Joseph Epstein, who writes literary criticism with regularity and distinction in various magazines, nevertheless ends up printing his familiar essays in The American Scholar, which he edits, and it is there that all but one of the 16 pieces in his new collection, Once More Around the Block, first appeared. It is his third collection of familiar essays to make it into a book, a rare achievement these days if you are writing neither popular rib-ticklers nor academic disquisitions.

Epstein's familiar essays truly are familiar -- indeed, personal -- to the degree that they can be considered fragments of an autobiography as delivered by a very high-class stand-up comic -- the Woody Allen whom Woody Allen takes himself to be. It is not an easy job, for though one knows pretty much who the audience is for fiction and standard nonfiction -- just as one knows that the readers for poetry are other poets -- one does not know for whom one is monologizing in the familiar essay, other than, like any artist, for oneself.

In any case, Epstein has the prerequisites. First, he enjoys life and his own company as he ambles through it and writes up his rambles idiosyncratically and flavorously. Second, he chooses topics of general interest on which he nevertheless has a personal, often heterodox, angle. These are: work, which unlike many people, he relishes; required reading, which he admits not to be reducible to a short, convenient, conclusive list; praise and our need for it -- his own greater than many another's; living in a small town, Evanston, and liking it; the love of books, especially used ones; language snobbery, to which he pleads guilty; humor, especially in writing; sports and being a fan, one's intellectuality notwithstanding; friendship, its scarcity and pitfalls; food and the joys of gluttony; lecturing, attending lectures, and, above all, avoiding them; keeping a journal; class, race, belonging and not belonging; hating and its pleasures; turning 50 and savoring it; Martin -- a friend and unforgettable oddball.

These are good topics and, at roughly 16 or 17 pages each, Epstein can promulgate his ideas comfortably but without usually outstaying his welcome; but, third and best, he has a style that can be lapidary and epigrammatic or discursive and challenging, as the occasion demands. The opinions and opinionatedness, though very much those of an ardent neoconservative, are worn with a certain lightness that takes the sting off them, although not off the butts of his jokes. As, for instance, when he thinks of Eric Sevareid "as a starter on my All-American Pomposity team, along with William Jennings Bryan, Daniel Ellsberg, Barbara Walters, and the older Orson Welles." That is a good lineup, with the unexpected juxtapositions that characterize effective similes and metaphors. The fun of attack or counter-attack, at which the author excels, is often in the wording, e.g., this about himself: "An intelligent reader will know that any man who has been compared to Hitler by Gore Vidal and to Zhdanov by Alfred Kazin can't, really, have been all bad."

Epstein can be accused of being facile, but not of being namby-pamby. Thus: "Although Sammy Davis, Jr. is my co-religionist, I would be willing to pay anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars on any given night simply not to see him perform." And again: "For intensity of besmirchment, no single award has so covered itself with the reverse of glory as the Pulitzer Prizes." This takes courage to write; it almost guarantees you'll never win one. Epstein, however, is not just a good attacker; he is also a sharp observer: "I owe a great deal of my education to roaming about such stores, and I sometimes think that the institution of the used-book store may have contributed more to the general education of the populace than has the institution of the university." "I cannot remember having read a single obituary in the New York Times that I consider close to being worth dying for." "I have never read a sentence by a literary critic with the word Gnostic in it that I have ever {sic} understood (except this one)." "Sports talk is the closest thing we have in this country to a lingua franca, though I wouldn't use that phrase in, say, a bowling alley or pool hall . . . It sometimes seems, in fact, that there is more to say about yesterday's baseball game than about Hamlet." "I have known others who could eat until the cows come home, and then slaughter the cows for a steak sandwich -- all without the least effect on girth or chin or limb. These, in my view, are among the favorites of the gods."

But the quality of the essayist is better conveyed by his sustained control of long stretches of prose, such as cannot be quoted in a short review. Let me try one anyway. "At fifty you can no longer claim you are young, the way you might, say, at forty-five, and get away with it. At fifty, however young, even immature, you may feel, you have to begin regarding yourself as middle-aged, early middle-aged, if that adjective makes you feel any better, but middle-aged nonetheless. At fifty you can look much younger than you are, if that is important to you (and if it was {sic} not important to lots of people, health clubs and plastic surgeons would be out of business). At fifty you can, with training, run a marathon, play serious tennis, swim the English channel. At fifty, again with training, you can have a lover of twenty-four. {I omit, regretfully, a lengthy parenthesis.} At fifty, you can still be in pretty good shape -- for fifty."

This is the sort of prose that carries you along as the July surf does when you sprawl on it supine, eyes shut to the exuberant sun. It supports you pleasurably, but the billows nudge you a bit, reminding you that peace is always precarious, that life, if you float too obliviously, jabs you awake with a mouthful of liquid salt. All the same (to change the image), Epstein's essays are a direct line of communication between two book-lined studies, the author's and the reader's: Essays, with minor exceptions, are meant as missives between book lovers. Even when Epstein writes about what is farthest from books -- say, sports, which he loves and I ignore -- he will make his point come alive for me with an apt quotation from the likes of Randall Jarrell. Altogether, he is a fine quoter, a most desirable feature in an essayist, who, in exploring ideas and experiences, is well advised to refer to previous explorers and cartographers. Reading this book, you pick up nuggets from all over -- from E. M. Cioran's aphorism on love, "an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other," to Karl Kraus' on its opposite, "Hate must make a person productive, otherwise one might as well love." One of the best things about Once More Around the Block is that in it the author often meditates on books that, absorbed and quoted, mediate and alleviate life.

There are two flaws here. One, particularly surprising from a self-proclaimed language snob, is a frequent carelessness about words, grammar, syntax. We find such things as "journalists comprise the verbal class," "one of the book's protagonists," "unbeknownst," "aggravation" for worry, "a jujubes," "forebear" for forbear, "consequences were thus impinged upon me," "the sixties" and "sports" as singular nouns, "people whom I feel are my enemies" and "whom I now think would be best described as . . . " and many, many more. This, however, is less irritating than the tone of mock modesty, as when Epstein describes himself as a teacher: "A little shallow learning lightly carried goes a long way, at least with the young"; or, on discovering errors in major writers, "Believe me, I don't enjoy feeling superior to Shakespeare, Burke, and Eliot, yet what is a man of serious standards to do?" Again, "I sounded to myself a bit pretentious, not to say a mite snooty," and so on. After numerous such remarks, we get: "I hope that the habit of self-mockery has helped me to elude the trap of self-inflation." I think not; it is just another, more socially acceptable but also more self-conscious, form of the same thing.

You cannot, however, stay mad long at a chap who can write: "The supposedly great decade markers -- twenty, thirty, forty -- whirred past, and I paid them no more heed than as a boy I did to {sic} the Burma-Shave signs along the highway: I noted them, smiled, and drove on." The only trouble with this neat trope is that it requires readers old enough to understand it: Civilized essays make demands on their readers. At one point Epstein quotes from a lecture in which he mentioned Edmond's continuing the Goncourt journals after the death of his brother, Jules, in 1870, and reflects that his student hearers "cannot have heard of the Goncourt brothers -- neither after all had I at their age -- but I am fairly certain that they never even heard of 1870." I don't know about 1870, but the years from around 1950 on in America -- with their, social, cultural, existential clangor -- can be heard loud and clear in these pages. :: John Simon is film critic of National Review and drama critic of New York magazine.