To the Editor:
So many current essays are so sharp-edgedly polemical that finding one . . . about the wholly impractical subject of the joy of reading and the polarities separating the active from the bookish person is a great delight. . . . Many thanks to Joseph Epstein for “The Noblest Distraction” [August].
Jackson, New Jersey
To the Editor:
In an article of five pages, Joseph Epstein drops a hundred names, which shows what is valued in some university departments of English and, apparently, by COMMENTARY. He tells us early that there can be no generally satisfactory list of recommended books. Then why go on about the subject? Is it so that the tired Anatole France-Marcel Proust anecdote can be trotted out yet again? Why sneer at certain authors, as Mr. Epstein does when suggesting that Santayana may have been removed from a list “to make room for such writers as Erica Jong, Chaim Potok, Kurt Vonnegut, Alvin Toffler, Gore Vidal, Alistair Cooke, and James Clavell”? And what is expected from us when we learn that Mr. Epstein recently acquired The Anatomy of Melancholy, Agnes Repplier’s essays, and Michelet’s Histoire de la Revolution Française? Are we to swoon with admiration, or with envy, delight, and awe?
The usual mistakes in English creep in. Mr. Epstein writes of “those fornicators and feeders who wish each in their own fashion to devour the world.” “Each” requires the singular. “Their” means that the fornicators and feeders all have the same fashion, which is not—so far as Mr. Epstein’s prose style permits one to be sure—what he intended. He tells us that “from the age of twenty to seventy-five one can best read something on the order of 5500 books.” He should have said “at best” or “at most.” His use of “best” makes 5500 the ideal number of books to read, again not what he intended. He calls 5500 “a piddling small number.” The meaning of piddling is trivial, paltry. So we have a trivial small number, rather than a trivial large number. He gives us this: “. . . there is no question but that for Ruskin reading ought to play a preponderant part in life.” The “but” could have been omitted. It should have been been omitted.
The article is, in any case, nonsense. An example: “The mystery and wonder of it is that somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds.” What is the evidence for this? How can we know? Finally, Mr. Epstein writes of “the bone knowledge of the bookish, who know that of the reading of books there is no end. . . .” What a revelation!
New York City
Joseph Epstein writes:
Dear Ed: Although we have never met, I take the liberty of addressing you as Ed because I feel we are getting to know each other. Over the past few months, you have written three letters to COMMENTARY about me. I feel, Ed, that we are becoming pen pals. How are things with your family? Well, I hope.
I guess every writer dreams of a reader like you, Ed. You know what I mean, someone who will give his work the kind of close attention every writer hopes for. And if such a reader wishes to develop an extended criticism out of a typographical error (I refer to the dropping of “at” in the phrase that should have read “at best. . .”), or make pedantic points while accusing the writer of being pedantic, or be just plain insulting—well, that is part of the game. Wasn’t it Stendhal who said that to write is to risk being shot at in public? But there I go dropping those names again, Ed. You’ll have to excuse me.
Well, Ed, that’s about it for now. I have to return to another essay I’m writing for COMMENTARY at the moment. I am sure I shall hear from you again once it appears. Meanwhile, my best wishes to you and yours for a jolly holiday season.