Epstein's (Pertinent Players, 1993, etc.) fifth collection of familiar essays, all drawn from his quarterly column in the magazine he edits (The American Scholar), maintains his high standards of honesty and amiability. Approaching sixty, this self-described old fogy strikes a cheerfully elegiac note in these admittedly solipsistic pieces. A master anecdotalist, with a talent for quotation, Epstein is a far better analyst of everyday life than he is of art. His love of Henry James, for example, comes across more powerfully in an essay on cars than it does in literary essays on the novelist. Epstein works James into all sorts of pieces here, from a celebration of cats to his vain peroration on hair. That he occasionally repeats the same tidbit might be a sign of the very old age he everywhere laments in this collection. ``An Apollonian kind of guy,'' Epstein gripes about ponytails, bell-bottoms, and suburbia. More seriously, he locates the contemporary rage for interviewing (too many Boswells and no Johnsons) in the obvious appeal to vanity and the lust for fame, to neither of which he is immune. ``Toys in My Attic'' well exhibits his love of word-play for its own sake (``What do you call a toupee? You call it, obviously, `hair apparent' ''), much as ``Merely Anecdotal'' admits his fever for the genre. His article on heroes vs. role models brilliantly decants contemporary rhetoric, and ``Decline & Blumenthal'' lumps together all sorts of legitimate gripes against our time. Signs of personal decline distress him, quite naturally; he reflects in general on the race with time and the intimations of mortality everywhere evident in his old neighborhood. The only more nostalgic piece is his touching memoir of his mother, a woman of great dignity, if no distinction. Good taste, common sense, gentle skepticism: the perfect combination for a light essayist.