That Epstein has allowed himself to be published by Axios is, in and of itself, not a little strange. Axios is the publishing wing of the Axios Institute, which gives every evidence of being a feel-good think tank or research institute, and which in its “Mission Statement” rattles on at modest length about “values” — “Values refers to objects, states of being, ideas, ways of thinking, or people that we value or do not value and related beliefs, assumptions or attitudes about what is valuable or not valuable” — in ways that strike me as almost diametrically opposite to the skeptical, sardonic view that Epstein is inclined to take toward human self-improvement schemes. Indeed, Axios has recently published “Desires, Right & Wrong: The Ethics of Enough,” by Mortimer J. Adler, the late pop philosopher and “Great Books” propagandist whom Epstein kissed off in a memorable obituary for the Weekly Standard as “The Great Bookie.” Now, under the aegis of Axios, the two are bedfellows, albeit mighty strange ones.
Oh well, these are tough times for books and the people who write them, so any port in a storm. I do hope, though, that Epstein is privately embarrassed by the over-hyped jacket copy with which his new book is festooned: “Who is the greatest living essayist writing in English? Unquestionably, it is Joseph Epstein. Epstein is penetrating. He is witty. He has a magic touch with words, that hard-to-define but immediately recognizable quality called style. Above all, he is impossible to put down. . . . How easy it is, in today’s digital age, drowning in e-mails and other ephemera, to forget the simple delight of reading for no intended purpose!” So be sure to have no purpose in mind when you sit down with “Essays in Biography.”
Internal evidence suggests that what seems to be the earliest of these pieces, about Henry Luce, was originally published in the late 1960s. The essay is fine as far as it goes in discussing the journalistic empire that brought forth Time, Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated, People and other contributions to the general weal, but those magazines have changed enormously (or, in the case of Life, simply died except for occasional special issues) since Epstein’s piece first appeared, and no effort has been made to bring the essay up to date and take those changes into consideration. I am old enough to remember all too well Time in the glory years about which Epstein writes, and even to have done a number of book reviews for Sports Illustrated during the 1970s, but younger readers will be more puzzled than enlightened by the well-aimed darts that Epstein sticks into Time’s ghastly prose style and Luce’s preoccupation with what he liked to call “the American Century.”