As a writer, I inevitably get asked a somewhat difficult question from time to time that I haven’t known how to answer: what should I be reading? The question usually comes from someone genuinely curious to find something compelling to read, but perhaps a bit intimidated to look beyond whatever small set of shelves in the bookstore are comfortable and familiar. (We all do that, by the way: I go to my “usual” sections to find something new before I venture into new territory.) Until now, I haven’t known how to respond, but the answer has just come to me: Joseph Epstein.
Who? Admit it: that was your response. Perhaps you were curious enough to click on his name just now to learn whatever Wikipedia might tell you… but that’s just as likely to bore you (it IS Wikipedia, after all) as delight you, so let me say a bit more.
As an essayist—and that’s what he’s best known for, though he also writes lovely fiction—Epstein writes the kind of pieces that make you forever more intelligent about the subject he’s engaged with. His subjects are pedestrian (actually, the proper word is “familiar”)—ambition, celebrity, envy, and a thousand others just like those—but his explorations of them are both delightful and thoughtful. Once you read his essay on, say, cats, you’ll never think about them the same way again… and wonder whether you actually ever did consider them at all, because YOU certainly never had the thoughts he’s had.
His writing is at once literary and human, by which I mean accessible. Take this opening bit, for example, from his essay “About Face,” which I love more than most of them:
“At fifty,” wrote Orwell, “everyone has the face he deserves.” I believe this and repeat it with confidence, being myself forty-six and hopeful that for me there is still time.
A quick throw to literature, followed by a witty personal observation… and we’re off to the races for 2o or so pages of bon mot after bon mot.
In some ways, I wish all of our work in the theater was a bit more like this: smart, but not off-puttingly obscure. Accessible, but not pandering. I believe we have a lot to learn from him.
And learn from him I did: I had the great good fortune to be Professor Epstein’s student one semester at Northwestern, and though we remained in touch until about ten years ago, the pathway between us has overgrown with time. I will, however, always treasure the few typewritten letters he sent me (one after I had the privilege of reviewing his essay collection Narcissus Leaves the Pool for the Baltimore City Paper).
Perhaps you can learn from him, too—just give him a read. I guarantee you’ll have a damn good time.