Monday, February 24, 2014

`So That You May Trust Your Heart'

Choosing my favorite among Joseph Epstein’s hundreds of essays is like choosing my fondest son. I can’t win. Inevitably I think of all the vying virtues, the long-held loyalties, the nagging sense of leaving something out, and I choke. I console myself with the reminder that my dilemma is enviable. Only a reader blessed with such bounty, or a father blessed with pride-inducing sons, can know my quandary. So I choose, not quite randomly, “The Pleasures of Reading” (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999). You see the pleasing appropriateness of my choice – an essay about the pleasures of reading by a writer who reliably delivers it. Which presents another dilemma – so much of the essay is irresistibly quotable, moving one to holler at the neighbors, “Hey, listen to this one,” that I’m tempted merely to point at “The Pleasures of Reading” and say, “Here, read the whole damn thing.” 

Much of the pleasure I take in the essay derives from the readerly kinship I feel with Epstein as reader, his tastes, history (“I grew up in an almost entirely unbookish home”), obsessions and neuroses: “I myself rarely leave the house without a book, and I have been known to read a few paragraphs in the elevator in our building, or possibly finish a page or two while in line at the bank, and even catch a quick paragraph in my car at a longish stop light.” Epstein is the only reader I know to make that final confession. Several years ago in Seattle, I was reading at a stop light when the motorcycle cop in the next lane broke the spell by telling me to pull over. He checked my license and registration because I had missed the green light while concentrating on my book. The cop gave me a severe lecture and let me off with a warning. Epstein wins my heart with this: 

“I have never clocked myself here, but my guess is that rare is the day I do not spend anywhere from four to five hours reading. Apart from ablutions and making coffee, reading is the first thing I do in the morning and generally the last thing I do at night.” 

Epstein is no Casaubon, no dry-as-dust pedant who reads at the expense of living. Reading is merely living by other means, and supplements the pleasure we already take in being alive. Some of the liveliest people I’ve known have been enthusiastic readers. Epstein notes some of the complex reasons he is drawn to books: 

“My motives in reading are thoroughly mixed, but pure pleasure is always high among them. I read for aesthetic pleasure. If anything, with the passing of years, I have become sufficiently the aesthetic snob so that I can scarcely drag my eyes across the pages of a badly or even pedestrianly written book….Along with the love of style I read in the hope of laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness, and dare I say it, wisdom; I read, finally, hoping to get a little smarter about the world.” 

A protracted reading of Epstein’s books has supplied me with all of the above, as well as another quality he omits, perhaps out of modesty: Epstein-ness. One of the great reading pleasures is following a writer across his work life, growing up alongside him, aging with him and relishing his ongoing company. I’ve also known Guy Davenport-ness, Cynthia Ozick-ness and Eric Ormsby-ness, all supplied by writers sufficiently individual to supply a known sensibility, unobtainable elsewhere. Writers, most of whom I’ve never met, have been my most generous teachers. Epstein says: 

“People who have read with love and respect understand that the larger message behind all books, great and good and even some not so good as they might be, is, finally, cultivate your sensibility so that you may trust your heart. The charmingly ironic point of vast reading, as least as I have come to understand it, is to distrust much of one’s education. Unfortunately, the only way to know this is first to become educated, just as the only way properly to despise success is first to achieve it.”

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