Friday, December 07, 2012

`His Changing Taste for Radishes'

“All of them, alas, are serious books, many of them, as I survey them now, a bit too serious for my taste. A few are biblia abiblia, or books that are no books: coffee table items or misfired publisher’s ideas.” 

Judged by their gently mischievous voice, you might guess the author of these sentences to be Charles Lamb. The clues are the pose of self-deprecation (“too serious for my taste”) and the relish in fustian vocabulary (“biblia abiblia”). In fact, the author is Joseph Epstein in “The Opinionated Librarian,” one of the essays published in The American Scholar, the journal he edited for twenty-two years, and collected in Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (Oxford University Press, 1979). The essay playfully treats library-tending, the culling of one’s book collection, as a species of literary criticism. Only recently while rereading it did I hear the echo which I traced to its source: Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” (Last Essays of Elia, 1833): 

“In this catalogue of books which are no books -- biblia a-biblia -- I reckon Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket Books, Draught Boards bound and lettered at the back, Scientific Treatises, Almanacks, Statutes at Large; the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and, generally, all those volumes which ‘no gentleman's library should be without.’” 

Epstein pays silent homage to one of his principal precursors, a writer with whom he shares an obvious temperamental and literary affinity. It’s a surprise to realize Epstein has never written at length about Lamb. In his “Preface” to Familiar Territory, he acknowledges the alter ego of Elia, with his friend William Hazlitt, as “none too bad at the familiar essay.” In Pertinent Players (1993), Epstein collects “Hazlitt’s Passions,” in which he glancingly judges Lamb as “more winning” than his essay’s subject. Epstein, Lamb, Hazlitt – all possess the rare gift of buttonholing readers, ushering us into a quiet corner and talking about themselves without boring the bejesus out of us. In fact, we want more. As he writes in “Reading Montaigne” (Life Sentences, 1997): 

“The impressive, the really quite astonishing thing is that Montaigne never bores on the subject of me; far from wishing him to go on to take up other matters, one is always rather pleased when he returns to it, even about such trivial things as his changing taste for radishes.”

[ADDENDUM: Max Beerbohm, a favorite of Epstein’s, refers to “biblia abiblia” and Lamb’s essay in “Books within Books” (And Even Now, 1920).]

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