A master of the essay form returns with a collection of brief pieces spanning nearly 20 years, 1996 to 2015.
Most of the offerings are indeed quite short, a few pages at most. Former American Scholar editor Epstein (A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014, etc.) sticks to straight chronology with only a few deviations for, one infers, circumstance’s sake. A few themes emerge. One is language: there are locutions he hates (“multitask,” “focus,” “branding”), and he believes in the significance of the sentence for writers. Another is technology: Epstein is the proud owner of a flip phone, which he rarely uses, and in several essays, he snarls about the ubiquity and abuse of the smartphone. Books (of course): he writes about his smallish library (for a bibliophile) and admits he’s pruned his collection a couple of times. He also writes about books he loves (In Search of Lost Time) and admits to some famous ones he hasn’t read (The Brothers Karamazov and the Bible, though he began reading it all in 2012). Politics: his conservative views emerge most often in context, but he does have one amusing essay imagining that two children of Alexander Portnoy are Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner. Writers he likes: Henry James and Proust pop up frequently, as does—a bit of a surprise—John O’Hara. Epstein tells us about his routines as a writer, his pride in being an author, and his anxiety about who should receive one of his author’s copies (he has two essays about this). Annoyances: he cancelled his New York Times subscription after 50 years, and he hates the custom of restaurant servers declaring their names. Personal improvement: he announces that he’s trying to quit swearing and to drop the word “yeah” from his conversation. He rarely mentions his family.
Another subtitle might have been Healthful Snacks, for these bite-size pieces are both enjoyable to ingest and good for you.