Last Night a Critic Changed My Life: Joseph Epstein

Robert Minto on how Joseph Epstein saved him for books

Photo Credit:  Guilherme Tavares

Photo Credit: Guilherme Tavares

AT THIRTEEN, FEW children can have been lonelier than I was. Stuck in rural Pennsylvania and home-schooled, the solitary representative of my generation, I spent my time alone, with my dog, or in books. Of these possibilities, books held the most promise. Books were conversation and adventure and company, all the things I was missing. But they had their limits. Without a friend who loves to read, or at the very least a distant model of the adult reader visible on one's own horizon, it can be difficult to make a transition from childhood.

As children we read for utility and a basic kind of pleasure. We read for facts, and are taught to do so by writing school reports on elephants, maple trees, and Johnny Appleseed. For fun, we lose ourselves in fantasies of identification: kid detectives, kid romances, kid wizardry. But the pleasures of form are largely beyond us.

I found Joseph Epstein in the Bloomsburg University Library, in the form of a book of essays squarely from the middle of his career: Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives. I have his publishers to thank for our introduction—I was first attracted by the uniformly pretty set of hardback volumes bearing Epstein's name. Libraries remove dust jackets, and most books look as bad as most people would without their clothes. But W.W. Norton and Co. had designed a book that looked good in the nude.

Epstein’s voice, his manner of unhurried reflection, his tart judgments—all these things beguiled me.

Exactly one of the writers Epstein discussed in Partial Payments—E.B. White, because of Charlotte's Web—was known to me. But that didn't matter. Epstein's voice, his manner of unhurried reflection, his tart judgments—all these things beguiled me. And the unspoken commitment that animated them changed me. Epstein clearly believed that beyond posturing and politics, plots and personalities, literature is sustained by a thirst for private literary pleasure, the pleasure of form: beautiful phrases, beautiful sentences, beautiful paragraphs; ideas fitted with the perfect words; the sensation of silently mouthing a sentence that actually tastes good to say. Sometimes Epstein even complained about the intensity of his appreciation:

While reading writers of great formulatory power—Henry James, Santayana, Proust—-I find I can scarcely get through a page without having to stop to record some lapidary sentence. Reading Henry James, for example, I have muttered to myself, "C'mon, Henry, turn down the brilliance a notch, so I can get some reading done." I may be one of a very small number of people who have developed writer's cramp while reading. We're a compulsive but amiable crew, those of us who feel, or have felt, the compulsion to re-record the bright thoughts of other men and women.

I saw the gentle irony in these complaints: I could tell that Epstein's greatest pride was his literary sensibility, that he cultivated notebooks like a farmer does fields. Before I had finished Partial Payments, I'd begun my own commonplace book. I read Partial Payments in a day and came back to the library the next day to get the rest of Epstein.

To a real reader, cultivating and expanding the horizon of their sensibility is a basic project. But there’s a second motivation for literary exploration, less noble sounding, perhaps, but equally important: curiosity about the people who write the books we appreciate. Epstein introduced me to this curiosity—or rather, introduced this curiosity into me—by amply providing its objective correlate: gossip. Not only did he spice every one of his essays with it, but he wrote a book about gossip:

I am…drawn to the nature of gossip, which, though often false and not less often malicious, can also be a species of truth, deliverable in no other way than by word of mouth, personal letter, diaries and journals published posthumously, and not obtainable otherwise. Just because information is begun in gossip does not mean it can't also be true. Gossip's particular brand of truth is beguiling truth: beguiling in the sense of being enticing, charming, sometimes deceptive, and always in need of being strained through skeptical intelligence.

Epstein, then, changed my life by setting an example. He was, I gathered, a nebbishy adult with a rich inner life, insatiably curious about books, but never in a hurry with any individual book. He was someone who read in lines at the grocery store and kept a commonplace book and reveled in the contextual paraphernalia of literary history: published journals, letters, autobiographical fragments. When I grew older I would learn that he was the editor of The American Scholar and I would be put off by the way political rancor increasingly crept into his prose and seemed to secretly motivate his aesthetic judgments. But that stuff wasn't there in the earlier books—or I didn't notice it, too ignorant of the world and too dazzled by the vision Epstein gave me of A Reader.

Epstein, then, changed my life by setting an example.

I read all of Epstein's books, and they changed me, but I haven't returned to them. I don't own them, and I haven't reread them. And I won't. He was a teacher, not the thing taught, and I learned from him why to read, how to read, and the basic practices that support reading: journaling, quotation-collecting, list-making, annotating. When I had finished voraciously consuming all of his extant essay collections, I had a personal syllabus, my first compiled-on-my-own to-read list, and it's the same one I have now, ramified and refracted a hundred times by the books I was led to.

Reading Epstein was, for me, opening the door to the house of literature, glancing down its corridors (dappled by the light streaming in from its million windows), and feeling myself to be—at last—home.

ROBERT MINTO is a philosopher of literature at Boston College and one of the editors of Open Letters Monthly.

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