Choosing a favorite work by Joseph Epstein is like selecting your favorite note ever played by Count Basie on the piano. Readers of good writers who are also prolific are doubly blessed, and Epstein is a writerly dynamo. From his familiar essays, I might pick “My Friend Matt”; the critical essays, “The Intimate Abstraction of Paul Valéry”; his books (an exceedingly tough choice), Friendship: An Expose (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) or Fred Astaire (Yale University Press, 2008). But what of the pieces on Larkin, Beerbohm and Santayana? And what of his short stories? As Epstein says in “Heavy Sentences,” “Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime.” And so is the reading.
Today, Jan. 9, Epstein -- mirabile dictu! -- turns eighty, and he contemplates the event with yet, of course, another essay, “Hitting Eighty” in the Jan. 2 issue of The Weekly Standard. It’s the cover story and is written not in complaint or celebration – predictable tones for first-person chronicles of getting old – but in Epstein’s customary voice of mordant amusement:
“As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen's majestic four-volume History of Rome. `You don't read any crappy books, do you?’ he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan.”
Epstein is a rare writer who lives up to Johnson’s admonition to Boswell: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.” There’s no ass-kissing or trendy politics. We can be assured that his words and thoughts are no one else’s. We read him for some of the same reasons we read Montaigne, including the simple pleasure of sharing the company of his sensibility, the products of which are bountiful: fifteen essay collections, four books of short stories, and nine other works of miscellaneous nonfiction. A persistent theme in Epstein’s work is friendship, a quality he encourages in his readers, whether he intends to or not. Quoting Epstein is never a burden. He writes aphoristically and with feeling. Here he is in Friendship:
“Why are people drawn to me? Embarrassing question though it is to confront, I would say it is due in part to the general aura, the high-octane fumes, of friendliness I give off, to the promise my personality seems to hold out for charm and chumminess: I am a teller of jokes, a doubtless too frequent reteller of well-polished anecdotes, someone who attempts to use language in an amusing way. But I also think that I come off – I say `come off,’ which is, please note, different from `am’ – as someone who is comfortable in his own skin, not vulnerable or needy, a man who is sailing through life well in control, owing to his strong sense of autonomy. Whether this is actually so is perhaps not a question for me to answer.”
Happy Birthday, Mr. Epstein.