Essays, at their best, are a miracle of the mind - and Joseph Epstein understands

March 09, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Why are certain literate people - but far from all - spontaneously compelled to surround themselves with books in ever-burgeoning quantities? Put aside practical purposes: research, reference, insulation against noisy neighbors, dread of insomnia, danger of the sudden arrival of Aunt Tillie (who presented you her library as well as a nice little trust fund). Consider, rather, the joy of munching and nibbling, at whim or random, in generous pastures of grand words. The most powerful engine of private library building is the promise of abandoned intimacy with paragraph and page.

For all the excitements of poetry, epic and otherwise, of the novel, rollicking or Russian, of history, of biography, of more, there is no form that, at its best, promises such intercourse more magnificently than the essay.

Yet, there is no more tedious, abused, trivial, boring waste of time, timber and tenacity than the large bulk of essays that are published. Thus, when exceptional ones appear, there is ground for jubilation. Celebrate "The Norton Book of Personal Essays," edited by Joseph Epstein (Norton. 480 pages. $30).

What do essays do, when they do right? Consummately -and few achieve that elevation - they are acts of art. That means, of course, that they change, more or less forever, the perceptions, the awareness, of the reader, the witness.

Epstein is editor of the American Scholar, each issue of which for many years has been graced by one of his own personal pieces. He has accumulated thus a well-earned reputation as one of the finest essayists - if not the single finest - at work today in the English language.

Fear of banality

(I fear, alas, for the glory of the American Scholar, for Epstein's magistracy there apparently has been called to an end by the foolish panjandrums of Phi Beta Kappa, the learned society that owns the shop. The likelihood of TAS skidding from superb to banal is grim.)

Epstein introduces this glorious collection by declaring that every effective essayist must have a strong point of view and then must write with absolute honesty. The book's intent is to remind readers "that their own lives exist in a world never dreamed of by social scientists, journalism, or any sort of academic thought."

The only limitation of content is that the pieces have been written in the 20th Century and originally in English. Many are very personal, even idiosyncratic. This is the sort of writing in which Epstein's test of total honesty of voice is most strained.

The first entry is Mark Twain's highly spoofy piece on the joy and satisfaction of reading Italian newspapers without knowing the language, "Italian Without a Master."

There is a breathtakingly affectionate description of Joseph Conrad by Bertrand Russell. Willa Cather's reflections on "A Chance Meeting" with the ancient niece of Gustave Flaubert is a tour de force of appreciation of a stranger.

Many of the names are legend - Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, A.J. Liebling, M.F.K. Fisher, Truman Capote, Cynthia Ozick, Doris Lessing, 54 in all.

Frank O'Connor's "In Quest of Beer" says in eight pages as much about pubs, drink itself, and the differences between the Irish and the English as might be attempted by others in a series of novels.

Who but a natural jazzman could force the word "Amen" from the lips of a reader by finishing an essay: "Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee." As Ralph Ellison does in "Living With Music." And where but in Lewis Thomas' "Notes on Punctuation," a three-page gem, could you find 12 consecutive closing parentheses and know exactly that they must be there and in that precise number. Or, to understand, with an immediate sense of epiphany, why the most exciting things in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" are the semicolons?

Theological doubt

In Joseph Epstein's own "I Like a Gershwin Tune" there is an appreciation of country-western music that should be carved somewhere in stone: "My pedantry seemed to get in the way. A song such as 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool' seemed to me badly in need of qualification; and that God made honky-tonk angels seemed to me, as a reader of Thomas Aquinas, theologically dubious. Still ..."

The art of anthologizing has become an appallingly undisciplined discipline, as the huge proliferation of books and the simplicity of producing them has given rise to what I tend to think of as Dumpster Publishing.

This collection, in contrast, is lean, clean, bright. Each piece says much. All echo a strong caution: If you don't know yourself damned well, and if you haven't the courage to accept that self, keep your writing to grocery lists and bread-and-butter notes.

A second truth rises from almost every piece: There is almost no truth without irony, almost no wisdom without wit. That "almost" is crucial, for there are great pieces, a few of them here, that curl not a lip, flick not an eyebrow, induce not a single laugh. But precious few. Most of these lovely essays, while not comic and seldom primarily funny, are steeped in wry.

That is not so much in the playfulness of language as in the interplay of ideas. The only mortality of the mind is certitude. There is little wisdom without wit. I was 12, I think, when it occurred to me that the genius of the Book of Job depends on high irony (though not high humor). The lesson I took - defying my catechism instructors' objections - was that God has a bad stomach.

The generosity of heart, mind and - yes - wisdom in this collection of confirming essays might just take care of that.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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