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 40 pieces in this book is a pure pleasure to read.
Epstein (former editor of American Scholar and author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit) brings an erudite gift for portraiture to the subjects of this volume's 40 essays. Focused primarily on figures from the 19th and 20th centuries (with occasional excursions into Greek antiquity and colonial America), Epstein offers eloquent assessments of philosophers, politicians, athletes, composers, social scientists, movie stars, and especially writers and critics. He is particularly drawn to figures whose renown is at odds with their personal and professional shortcomings hence, his evaluation of Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man, as a writer whose inability to complete his second novel for the next 42 years suggests that "perhaps it is not a good idea to write a great book the first time out." His studies of Dwight Macdonald, Gore Vidal, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Kristol create a lively, multifaceted portrait of America's postwar intelligentsia. Though not uncritical, Epstein is more adulatory of celebrities, among them George Gershwin ("a genius of the natural kind"), Irving Thalberg ("the most talented producer in the history of American movies"), and Michael Jordan ("this magnificent athlete who turned his sport into art"). Opinionated and sometimes personal (notably in his piece on Saul Bellow, who fell out with him), these essays are edifying and often very entertaining.