Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably 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 today to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose. Each of the 38 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.
Epstein follows up Essays in Biography (2012) with another collection of provocative and beguiling thought pieces. The six selections grouped under "Memoir" comprise an informal autobiography that takes the author from his Chicago boyhood to his current life as an obit-reading septuagenarian. In one of the book's best essays, "A Virtucrat Remembers," Epstein relates how the liberal advances of the 60s turned him off liberalism; he dismantles a polemic against neoconservativism that was published in Dissent in 1973 only to reveal that he was the angry young man who wrote it. A number of these essays grow out of omnivorous reading. From books about the rising popularity of plastic surgery, Epstein deduces that plastic surgeons combine "the work of a sawbones with that of a shrink" hence the essay's title "Prozac, with Knife." The range of his curiosity is exhilarating: he writes as insightfully on art critic Hilton Kramer and the New York Review of Books as he does on higher education and, in "What to Do About the Arts" inspired by his years serving on the National Endowment for the Arts on the decline of artistic standards in contemporary America. Though they span nearly 40 years, the essays are remarkable for their consistency of tone and abundant insights about fiction, poetry, philosophy, and sociology.