Tag Archives: Joseph Epstein

My Personal Notations from “A Mere Journalist” by Aristides [Joseph Epstein] in The American Scholar (Winter 1985/86).

“Off and on for more than twenty years, I have been keeping a journal.  One expects a famous writer to keep a journal,” wrote Aristides, the pen name for Joseph P Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, 1975-1997. 

“The first function of a young writer’s journal: a place to grouse, a place to dramatize one’s condition in prose, and a place to bemoan the fact that, once again, this time in the instance of oneself, the world in its ignorance is failing to recognize another genius.”

“In my [current] journal…I have done my best to cease complaining and have taken as my motto the lines from the beer commercial that runs ‘I guess it doesn’t get much better than this.’”

“…to feature introspection and self-analysis…even in a journal has its limits.”

“Who needs this?…I suppose I alone do.  Something in me impels me to record much I have thought, or experienced, or read, or heard.”

“I find keeping a journal quickens life; it provides the double pleasure of first living life and then savoring it through the formation of sentences about it.”

Graphomania: a writer’s disease “taking the form of simply being unable to put down the pen (the authorly equivalent to logorrhea).  ‘Advanced’ stage takes the form of needing to write down everything because anything that hasn’t been written down isn’t quite real.”

“The graphomaniac’s slogan is ‘no ink, no life.’”

“I must confess that I do not write in my journal every day.  But when I do write something in my journal, I feel rather more complete…  Not that journal writing elevates me–it doesn’t, usually…”

“I do feel upon having made an entry in my journal as if I have done my duty, completed, in effect, an act of intellectual hygiene.”

“I do not often look into my journals; yet whenever I do, I am impressed by how much experience has slipped through the net of my memory.”

“I suspect that anyone who keeps a journal has to be something of a Copernican–he [or she] really must believe that the world revolves around himself [or herself].”

“Everything I have written is these journals is true–or at least as true as I could make it at the time I wrote it.  Lying, as such, is not, I believe, a question in my journal.”

“I try, when writing in my journal, to keep in mind the twin truths that I am someone of the greatest importance to myself and that I am also ultimately insignificant.  (This is not always so easily accomplished.)”

“Sometimes I am astonished at the items that find their way into this journal of mine.”

“I [once] wrote that John Wayne had become part of the furniture of [my] one’s life.  The first half of one’s life, it strikes me, one fills up one’s rooms with such furniture; the second half, one watches this furniture, piece by piece, being removed.”

“My journal has served as a running inventory of my days, and I am pleased to have kept it.”

“Though we must live life forward, ‘Life can only be understood backward,’ wrote Kierkegaard.  Yet a journal does provide backward understanding…a great aid in replaying segments of past experience, in running over important and even trivial events, in recollecting moods and moments otherwise lost to memory.”

“A journal is a simple device for blowing off steam, privately settling scores, clarifying thoughts, giving way to vanities, rectifying hypocrisies, and generally leaving an impression and record of your days.”

“When you are through with it, [and] when the time has come to leave this…earth, you can even pass the damn thing along to your yet unborn great-grandchildren.”





“A great work of art may provide us the opportunity to feel more profoundly and more generously, to perceive more fully the implications of experience, than the constricted and fragmentary conditions of life permit.”  –Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (Noble, 1968)

. . .

Underlinings and Notes from A Literary Education by Joseph Epstein (Axios, 2014)

“Apart from those people trained as professional scholars or scientists, we are all finally autodidacts [self-taughts[, making our way on our own as best we can, with our real teachers being the books we happen to read.”

“…the best that any university can do is point its students in the right direction: let them know what the intellectual possibilities are and give them a taste of the best that has been thought and written in the past.”

“…literature, largely though not exclusively imaginative literature, provides the best education for a man or woman in a free society.”

“While novelists may have a plenitude of ideas, or deal with complex ideas in their work, it is rarely their ideas that are the most compelling things about their work.”

“A literary education establishes a strong taste for the endless variousness of life; it teaches how astonishing reality is–…”

“…a literary education teaches the limitation of the intellect itself, at least when applied to the great questions, problems, issues, and mysteries of life.”

“A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases [and] those cases that…prove no rule–the unique human personality.” 

“…  [I]t provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforce the inestimable value of human liberty…”

. . .

Epstein quoting Marcel Proust: “Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing truth.  It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning, but through other agencies.  Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.”


“VIRTUCRAT”: “any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.”

“After all these years, I may have found my own best reader, and he turns out to be me.”

Some selected works:
Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974)
Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)
The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983)
With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)
Snobbery: The American Version (2002)
Friendship: An Exposé (2006)
In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007)
Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (with Frederic Raphael) (2013)
A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014)

“I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths. I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”

“I’m not so sure that statistics have much to tell us about a cultural activity so private as reading books.”

“Serious readers…when young they come upon a book that blows them away by the aesthetic pleasure they derive from it, the wisdom they find in it, the point of view it provides them.”

“For myself, I have come to like books that do not have photographs of their authors, preferring my imaginings of their looks to the reality.”

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

“Books are an addiction.”

“Nearly all modern stories or memoirs of growing up are accounts of sadness, loss, secret terror.”

“Many people write or become psychoanalyzed in order to bury the ghosts of their childhood. I wish, as best I can, to revive the ghosts of mine….”

“Thinking too much about the future resembles thinking too much about breathing–the result is to make one feel very uncomfortable. Best to glory in what was finest in the past, to concentrate on the present, and to allow the future to fend for itself.”

“…without friendship, make no mistake about it, we are all lost.”

“. . . I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”



By: James F. O’Neil

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten–Robert Fulghumall i needed to know

My mother once overwhelmed me by reciting the names of so many of her high school teachers.  Her telling was many years ago–and many years after she left Lindblom High School in Chicago.  I once tried to replicate her memory of my teachers.  Once.

Throughout my teaching career, I was (and still am) a firm believer that “teachers teach as they were taught,” choosing eclectically the best practices and avoiding the worst of the worst.  I always wanted to become aware of those who were memorable, or non-memorable, teaching influences in my life. 

I, for example, though not starring in many school plays, hated to memorize lines.  I hated any type of public recitation, from a “Bah!  Humbug!” in 7th grade to “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in 10th grade.  Yet despite my aversion to memorization, there was no way out.  I had to do it: multiplication tables, geometry theorems, aorist tenses in Greek, and even argumentation principles.

Memorization is an action of memory, hence the root of the word.  “If memory serves me correctly,” usually it does.  And for some, memory serves better than for others.  What matters about baseball statistics or capitals of states or GNP of countries?  Caring.  Who cares?  Yes, that’s the point.

The Pythagorean theorem–a² + b² = c²–meant nothing to me.

Who cares?  I didn’t–until a teacher (a nun, a Religious Sister of Mercy, RSM) explained that throwing a ball from third base to first over the pitcher’s mound was NOT 90 feet, but 127.27922 feet.  She and Pythagoras made that very clear.

I cared now.  I needed a strong arm to play third base.

Caring determines memorization acumen.  If I care so much about subject X, for whatever reason–to get a good grade, to show off, to complete myself, to prove something to myself or to others–then memory will serve me well.  (Though for certain school subjects, “Use it or lose it” does come into play.  I rarely use “side-angle-side,” the quadratic equation, or R-O-Y-G-B-I-V–except when I see a rainbow.)

So what good to remember names of teachers unless one cares?  How often am I actually called upon to write an essay on “The Most Influential Person in My Life”?  Teachers might come to mind were I writing a college admission essay.  Or “the fastest airplane ever” if I were an airplane enthusiast.  Or anything with lists or numbers or beliefs or…ad infinitum (Ah, that’s one to remember: “to infinity” but then I might add “and beyond” for an update to include time and space: ad astra per aspera, an axiom or motto adopted by some pilots in World War Two.) 

And the list goes on. . . .

But those special teachers: I cannot forget.  Ever.  Like my mother, no matter how old I am, I remember.  Or try to remember.  But is the past worth returning to?  Do I need to be able to remember or list teachers?  

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

“Memory,” Joseph Epstein writes, “with the ability it bestows to allow a person to live vividly away from the body and immediate environment, is a possible sign of the ability to live after the body has disappeared.”

Receiving notification of the death of a former teacher, I page through my high school yearbook.  The spirits live, as Epstein believes.  I was looking to find a picture of one of my “ghost” teachers, to find a picture that might enliven a memory.  There he was.  His death notice showed him to be thirteen years older than I, both then and now.  However, he looked so young in the picture; he was never “old.”  (My graduation picture shows me at age 18.)

Opening the pages–still mostly intact after fifty years!–I find pleasure.  Calm overtakes me: I see my teachers; I look into the eyes of my classmates.  There is something that even thrills me.  My youth?  All our youth?  (Except for those “old” teachers.)

Yes, those memory-filled pages (as trite as it sounds) bring smiles to my face, stories into my mind.  And those teachers, those favorites, live on: history, science, Latin, math, music, religion, even Greek and some German.

Yet I could not, however, list them all from memory.  When I open the book, however, I visualize and want to tell the stories.  I want to recount who did what, what “battles” were fought, who still survives.

A yearbook isn’t simply a book about “years”; it is about life.  It has a spiritual life of its own–even though a body has disappeared.  Timeless.  Though I might age, I am forever young within its pages.  These pages contain so much memory of a part of my life–even, perhaps, an incalculable part.

And, really, I was a handsome guy….

©  James F. O’Neil  2014

 Pic of 1936 Yearbook from Lindblom High School (Credit: eBay)





By: James F.O’Neil

I have become an Epstein-ite.  Joseph Epstein was former editor of The American Scholar and teacher of writing at Northwestern University.  Born and educated in Chicago, as I was, he came into my life through some of his familiar essays. 

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

These writings have helped shape me and my reading “habits” (definitely an “addiction” word).  Bored with some of the “masters,” I have learned to decide for myself what I want to do with the printed word.  I will not stop reading, that is for sure–“better read than dead.”

Espousing what Epstein means in writing that books “have become much more like family,” I have in my bookcases pictures of family on the shelves; intermixed with books, I have special photo albums and journals of travels and picture books–even special “family mementos.”  A mix, of poetry, philosophy, psychology, history; film books, Books of the Western Canon, a Bible here and there, pop “culture,” and art books; some law, an education treatise or two, architecture and humanities; and even a few books each about chocolate, Absolut vodka, and fairy tales.  This is my family–and, in my life, “family is everything.”

In his essay “Bookless in Gaza” (a takeoff on Eyeless in Gaza, a bestselling novel by Aldous Huxley, published in 1936), Joseph Epstein writes of his early reading experiences, which were not “friendly.”  John Milton wrote about the Biblical Samson, captured and later blinded by the Philistines–“eyeless”–then forced into labor in Gaza.          

Epstein relates how his “forced labor” reading [emphasis mine], like doing book reports–actually faking them–gradually became a labor of love, actually an “addiction.”  (No doubt, Epstein was able to outgrow and break away from the “ignorant and uncultured” philistine teachers of his childhood.)    

He confesses that he holds “a philistine assumption”: that everyone dies someday (not an intellectual matter at all).  With this belief, he writes (as he has written elsewhere) that he wants to be “as well read as possible”–“better read than dead.”           

“And now a philistine confession to go with a philistine assumption: I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths.  I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”          

“. . .  I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”

I, too, desire great things in life–especially to live long and prosper.  Reading, in my estimate, as an Epsteinite, will continue to reinforce this desire.

© James F. O’Neil  2013

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