Epstein's third book of literary essays strikes a less polemical note than either Partial Payments (1989) or Plausible Prejudices (1985). Here, the American Scholar editor concentrates on writers for whom he feels a certain affinity, and proves an expert literary portraitist--if not a very dynamic critic. Epstein allows his interest in biography to overdetermine some of these pieces--his comments on a writer's work can seem perfunctory and mundane. At his best, he offers insights into a writer's career as evidence of ``the literary life,'' in which ``the experience of books has been integral with the experience of life.'' Epstein's notion that endless reading leads to ``skepticism about general ideas, systems, and theories'' pays off in appreciative portraits of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sidney Hook, and Sydney Smith. The author successfully draws attention to the neglected work of Italo Svevo, who created a masterpiece against all odds; to Desmond McCarthy, always on the verge of greatness; and to Maurice Baring, who deserves better than Edmund Wilson's faint praise. The most polemical piece here is a well-argued defense of Mencken against the charge of anti-Semitism. Cautionary tales are offered in fair-minded profiles of educational maverick Robert Hutchins, ``hack genius'' Ben Hecht, and once-overrated poet Carl Sandburg. Epstein's heroes include few surprises--George Orwell and Henry James--but his ``affinity'' for William Hazlitt seems based on nothing more than that both he and Hazlitt have been accused of writing ungrammatically, in a ``take-no-hostages'' style. In fact, Epstein's paean to those guardians of the language, Fowler and Gowers, includes a glaring lapse in grammar, as well as some of the very usages Fowler warns against. Epstein is a curious combination of tummler and Anglophile, leading to odd shifts in diction. His work lacks the wit and elegance of fellow New Criterion contributor Bruce Bawer (The Aspect of Eternity, p. 632), who otherwise shares the same commitment to common sense and readability.