Conversations with a good, smart friend

NARCISSUS LEAVES THE POOL by joseph Epstein Houghton Mifflin 321 pp., $25

It might be said that the primary purpose of a diary is to allow us to talk to ourselves, though many a would-be Pepys has imagined his or her pages admiringly perused by readers of a future age. The main purpose of a letter is to communicate with a specific recipient, though many of us have doubtless found ourselves in the position of writing long missives that are probably of more interest to ourselves than to the intended readers. In some ways, the essay occupies a kind of middle ground, for the most natural-sounding essayists are those who seem simultaneously to be talking to themselves and talking to us, their readers.

Joseph Epstein has been writing essays of this kind for decades. Lucid, inviting, relaxed, yet never so casual as to be slovenly, his essays have won him a devoted readership in journals like The New Yorker, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, and The American Scholar, the last of which he also edited from 1975 to 1997.

"Narcissus Leaves the Pool," containing 16 "familiar essays," is his sixth book-length collection. The first piece, which gives this book its title, introduces Epstein standing naked at his bathroom mirror after a shower: "not," as he puts it, "an altogether enrapturing sight." This leads him to reflect on how much importance he, like many of us, has attached to his physical self-image: too much.

In another essay, Epstein considers the problem of information overload. While it's nice to be well-informed on a wide range of topics, it's better to be able to distinguish what is ephemeral from what is of lasting significance, he concludes. "Do I really need to know more - or anything at all, really - about Strobe Talbott or Liam Neeson?" he wonders, adding, in self-deprecation, "You are reading the words of a man who actually took an hour out of his life to read an interview by Norman Mailer of Madonna. If any lingering respect you might have had for me has vanished and you wish to stop reading me here, I shall of course quite understand." Most of us, I suspect, will wish to read on.

Epstein's essays have some of the qualities one associates with a conversation with a good friend: directness, ease, sincerity, and affability.

Napping, name-dropping, the strangely potent charms of favorite songs are some of the other topics he discusses.

Although Epstein is quite definite about what he likes and what he dislikes, he is also capable of changing his mind when confronted by strong evidence. "Trivial Pursuits" explains how the author, once a diehard sports fan, came to share George Orwell's view that "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, and disregard of all rules" and is part of "the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

Along with the felicities of Epstein's own prose, his essays are enhanced by his discerning use of provocative, memorable, and enlightening quotations.

Not surprisingly, a man who gets so much out of other people's words has a lot to say about the joys of reading and the problem of choosing the books that are most rewarding. "There is something invigorating," he declares, "about reading 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' - invigorating and inspiring - something that makes you believe, while you are reading it, that the panorama of life, in all its complication, has been mastered."

Epstein's friends and mentors are another source of quotations - and inspiration. The thoughtful and cultivated social scientist Edward Shils is the subject of the poignant essay that concludes this collection. "My friendship with Edward," reflects Epstein, "was to be the crucial intellectual event of my life." Under Shils's influence, he recalls, "I began to see the world as simultaneously more complex and more amusing."

Gravity, responsibility, knowing when to put away childish attitudes and become, in the real sense, a "grown-up": Epstein laments that these qualities, which he very much admires, are no longer much admired in our youth-obsessed culture. Deftly blending gravity with a saving touch of levity, his essays exude a civilized urbanity that many readers will find restorative.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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