Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Joseph Epstein would surely be at the top of anybody’s list. 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.
Joseph Epstein’s Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays is the third volume of essays from Axios Press following the much acclaimed Essays in Biography, 2012 and A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014. It contains 142 short essays, literary sprints rather than marathons. Subjects range from domestic life to current social trends to an appraisal of “contemporary nuttiness.”
After reading Epstein, we see life with a fresh eye. We also see ourselves a little more clearly. This is what Plutarch intended: life teaching by example, but with a wry smile and such a sure hand that we hardly notice the instruction. It is just pure pleasure.
The 143 essays in Epstein's entertaining new collection (after A Literary Education) are compulsively readable. Written between 1996 and 2015, primarily for the "Casual" section of the Weekly Standard, most run to fewer than 1000 words, develop their themes in under a dozen succinct paragraphs, and frequently conclude with epigrammatic witticisms. Epstein shows himself capable of writing engagingly at that brief length on just about any topic that strikes his fancy: parents instructing children about the facts of life, aging memory, coining neologisms, movie palaces of yore, the traditional hot dog as an endangered species, adult education classes, shoe shines, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Enlivening Vices. He even expresses his opinion about having no opinion, in an essay entitled (not surprisingly) "No Opinion." A significant number of essays target language and writing, and these yield some of his most trenchant insights: "Style in prose is intelligence perfectly formulated," he remarks in "Mr. Epstein Regrets." The essays are peppered with personal memories and quotes from literature and punctuated with bursts of humor Epstein likens a bandleader's bellow to that "of a man who has just been pushed off a cliff" and they abound with pleasures that belie their brevity.