The Ideal Of Culture: Essays, by Joseph Epstein
I must admit that I did not know anything about the author before reading this book. Sometimes that can be dangerous, but in this case the result of reading this book was getting to know the thinking and feeling of a writer whom I would like to read a lot more of. There are definitely some interesting strands in the author’s thinking that I find appealing, from the author’s moderation in political matters to a cultured approach that points out the snobbery of being cultured as being accessible to anyone who is willing to take the care to be a well-read and sound-thinking person, which is the sort of snobbery that I can wholeheartedly endorse and probably unconsciously and frequently exhibit. Much of the book consists of wonderfully written and elegant book reviews, and as a prolific book reviewer myself, I can recognize in these reviews the work of someone who is an elegant craftsman of his thinking on literature, and one can see the results of many hundreds and thousands of books read and digested and ruminated and reflected upon. It should also go without saying that such a book is not by any means a quick read, and so the reader of this book is going to have to devote a fair amount of time to reading it to read it justly.
This book is a hefty collection of works that is more than 500 pages long and is divided into five sections, with the smallest sections first and last. The book begins with an introduction, and then the first part, on “the culture,” which leads to various essays on such issues as old age, wit, coolness, the sixties, as well as the ideal of culture and its threat in an age that seems disinclined to serious reading and thinking. After this, the author includes a host of biographical essays that are written about a large host of writers, including Willa Cather, the young T.S. Eliot, Kafka, Proust, Eric Auerbach, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tacitus, and Philip Larkin, and also includes reviews on books about biographies, cliches, grammar, and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (II). This is followed by essays relating specifically to Jewish culture (III), such as the work of Sholem Aleichem, the genre of jokes, and thoughts about a Jewish Christmas. This is followed by the author looking at masterpieces like Memoirs of Hadrian, the Life of Johnson, Epicetus’ writings, Speak, Memory (a fantastic memoir), as well as the Brothers Ashkenazi (IV). The book then finishes with a brief essay on hitting eighty (V), after which there are original publication notes for the essays of the book and an index.
In many ways, this book demonstrates the author’s ideal of culture by exploring different elements of that culture. One of the highest compliments I can give the author as a reviewer is that he reads books with a goal of liking and appreciating them. There are a great many people who enter into the field of criticism and do not like or seem to want to like what they are reading or listening to or eating or the like. This is not the case here. At times the author has deeply critical things to say about the writing he deals with, but the author looks for ways to praise authors, whether for their obvious literary skill, or for their moral seriousness, or for skills in description, or something else of that nature. If the author shows a distaste for preachiness in literature, a common failing among many of us who write , there are a lot of pleasant essays about the author’s reading and thinking here, bookended with thoughts about aging and culture, making this an excellent collection of essays from someone whose writings I would like to be more familiar with, though hopefully most of the other books are a bit shorter.
 Those who can do. Those who can’t teach. Those who can’t teach sell. Those who can’t sell preach. And those who can’t preach critique.