My combined roles as television couch potato and language snob have not been easy on me. What I most watch on television is sports and news, with a fair amount of DVDs, these chiefly of English detective stories. Much of this television watching is done in the evening, when, as they say about major-league pitchers who have been hit hard, you can put a fork in me, I'm done. I turn on my television set, in the cant phrases of the day, to kick back, to chill, to knock off for the day.
Except I don't, or at least not quite. Too often someone paid to know better—a newscaster, a sports announcer, a politician, a civil servant—will use a word or phrase that arouses my ire.Read more
Ronald Syme—actually, Sir Ronald Syme—is not a household name in America, but perhaps it ought to be. Syme (1903-1989) was a New Zealand-born classicist, later an Oxford don, who is in many quarters regarded as the greatest historian of ancient Rome. He wrote a biography of Sallust and a two-volume biography of Tacitus, who, in the time of the emperors, was himself the greatest historian of Rome. With a book called The Roman Revolution (1939), Syme turned round the standard interpretations of Roman history, demonstrating that Augustus, the first undisputed monarch of Rome, was, in his pretensions to restoring the Roman Republic, a brilliant fraud. As for the Roman constitution, Syme called it "a screen and a sham." No oneRead more
For a man who delved into the lives of others, not all that much is known about the life of Cornelius Tacitus, historian of Rome under the empire. He was born in 56 or 57 a.d. and is thought to have died around 125 a.d. His family came from Narbonensis (the modern Provence), or possibly from Northern Italy, and so he was not Roman by birth. He was what the Romans called a novus homo, or new man. He married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman general, a man of the provincial nobility who conquered and brought under Roman suzerainty large swaths of Britain.Read more
Christmas these days is signaled not by the music played in shops and the wreaths hung along lampposts, but by the increasingly heavy load of catalogues that begin arriving in the mail late in October. Pity the poor mailman, having to lug such stuff around. These catalogues give recycling a bad name. Recycling them, after all, is the surest guarantee that more will arrive. Best, late at night, when the pollution police are long since in bed, to burn them at a disagreeable neighbor's curb.
I have to confess that once in a red moon I do peek into these catalogues, if only to see how mere conspicuous consumption has evolved into wildly ridiculous consumption. A month or so ago, in one of these catalogues I discovered that one couldRead more
I taught at a university for 30 years, from 1973 until 2002. The timing of my departure was exquisite. I left before smartphones became endemic and political correctness, with triggering and microaggressions and the rest, kicked in. The courses I taught—in Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and in something called Advanced Prose Composition—were all electives, and so my sampling of students may have been less than comprehensive, but I liked the kids who wandered into my classes. Twenty-five or so among them have become and remain my friends.Read more
I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.
Notes Toward the Definition of Culture
—T. S. Eliot
In 1991 I wrote an essay for the American Scholar called “The Ignorant Man’s Guide to Serious Music,” in which I was both the ignorant man and the guide. The essay was about my love for classical music and my hopeless inability to get beyond the stage of a coarse admiration of it. Midway through the essay I remarked on the vast quantity of great music available from the past, and as an example mentioned a composer I had not hitherto heard of named Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709).Read more
In 2008, at the age of 27, Roger Federer had finished his fourth consecutive year as the number-one ranked tennis player in the world, already won 13 Grand Slam tournaments, and made most of his opponents look as if they had come to play against him with a cricket bat instead of a tennis racquet. That year the Onion published a photograph of Federer, on which was listed his strengths and weaknesses.Read more
From my living-room windows, I can see two of the three coffee shops within a block of our apartment. Within less than a mile, there are five other coffee shops. In America the coffee shop has for the most part replaced the neighborhood bar, the country club, it used to be said, of the working man. Bars have never been my idea of a good time. Hemingway was, I think, correct when he said that there were only two reasons to go into a bar: the search for complaisant women and the yearning for a fight.Read more
Roughly four years ago I reported on the acquisition of a calico kitten named Hermione. I began by writing that she was asleep in my inbox. Now four years later, too large for my inbox, she sleeps in the chair next to mine in the room in our apartment I call my office. I ended my earlier scribble about her by saying that whatever disorder she might bring into my life I judged to be worth it. I now have to report that she has brought no disorder whatsoever, and instead her becalming company has brought only contentment, pleasure, and delight.Read more
Philosophers, held Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), are of two kinds: didactic and contemplative. The former tend to have minds that gravitate to the formation of bold and graspable ideas, the latter to thoughts less readily summarized. Aristotle’s golden mean, Descartes’s cogito, Kant’s categorical imperative, Hegel’s dialectic, and Marx’s economic determinism are examples of the first kind of philosopher.Read more
I have an issue with issue—with the word, that is. It pops up everywhere, meaning everything and meaning nothing. One hears of a pitcher who has rotator-cuff issues, of a landlord who has issues with pets in his buildings, of a bill up before Congress that poses jurisdictional issues. A weather reporter informs me that dressing warmly in a snowstorm is the main issue. The issue over reinstating the draft is whether soldiers serving only two years can be of serious military use.Read more
Difficult, they say, to pass a family business on to the third generation. Proof of this assertion is the business known as the City of Chicago, run by the Daley family for two generations but now turned over to non-Irish carpetbaggers, with no future Daley in view.Read more
This past week I decided to change living arrangements chez Epstein. I turned my office into a den and our spare bedroom into an office. Sounds simple enough. I soon realized that I would have to hire professional movers to lug a couch, a weighty television set, and several bookcases and a few file cabinets from one room to another in our apartment. I was prepared to do so, and to pay the expense, which came to $288 plus $60 in three $20 tips for the men who did the lugging.Read more
"Mother,” asks 10-year-old Johnny upon returning from school, “do I have a cliché on my face?”
“A cliché on your face? Whatever do you mean, Johnny?”
“A cliché,” he answers, “you know, a tired expression.”Read more
I once appeared on a panel at the National Endowment for the Humanities with two women who talked about the importance of their secondary education. One was German and spoke reverently of the gymnasium she was fortunate enough to attend. The other, an American, spent her adolescence in France and mentioned her deep debt to the lycée that gave her so sound a grounding in the classics. When my turn came, I remarked how I envied them, and allowed that I had myself gone to a public high school in Chicago notable for its disadvantaged teachers.Read more
I just bought a bottle of Waterman’s ink for $11.34, tax included. The bottle contains 50ml, or less than two ounces, of black ink. This makes ink far more expensive than wine, even quite superior wine. I would have complained—or at least exclaimed—about the price, but the man who sold it to me was so pleasant and so knowledgeable about fountain pens that he quite took the whine out of my sails.Read more
Herodotus, the first Greek and thereby the first Western historian, had bad press long before there was anything resembling a press. Aristotle referred to him as a “story-teller,” which was no honorific. What he meant was that Herodotus made things up, another word for which is “liar.” Thucydides had little good to say about Herodotus and thought his attempt to recapture the long-gone past foolhardy.Read more
Sometime in mid-February, after the long winter, baseball fans are delighted to read, usually over a two-paragraph-long story buried beneath the fold in the sports pages, the tag line Pitchers and Catchers Report. They are reporting, of course, to spring training two or three weeks ahead of the rest of their teams, and the announcement bodes the first news of the lengthy and leisurely baseball season ahead.Read more
This morning I was reading along in Vladimir Jabotinsky’s remarkable novel The Five, when I came to a chapter titled “Inserted Chapter, Not Intended for the Reader.” The chapter, it turns out, is about nature writing. Jabotinsky’s narrator, a writer, notes that a critic remarked on the absence of descriptions of nature in his work. He, the narrator, goes on to say the reader “doesn’t read descriptions of nature; I at least always skip over them mercilessly.” He goes on to mention that he doesn’t understand why God, among his other mistakes, created winter.Read more
In past years I have taken to print to attack two words—focus and icon—that drove me bonkers. Focus, a metaphor from the world of cameras and microscopes, replaced the words concentrate and emphasize. Suddenly everywhere ballplayers lost their focus, students were encouraged to find theirs, schools, companies, nations began focusing on this or that problem. Hocus-pocus, I used to -mutter to myself, please, drop the focus. Nobody did, and the word today has still not lessened in popularity.Read more
Of late, the last four years or so, I rarely go out for long without being praised. I am praised not for my writing, my perspicacity, my elegant bearing, my youthful good looks, my extreme modesty, but for my eyeglasses. “Nice glasses,” strangers say to me. “Like your glasses,” they say. “Love those glasses,” is a refrain I hear at least once a week. “Where did you get those glasses?” people wearing glasses of their own often ask me. “Thank you for your kind words about these glasses,” I have taken to answering. “They are my best feature.”Read more
Our friend and contributor Joseph Epstein once called himself a “serious dilettante,” which he defined as “someone who feels he needs to know nearly everything, but not all that much of any one thing in particular and certainly nothing in the kind of depth that will weigh him down.”Read more
T.S. Eliot thought that the first requisite for being a literary critic is to be very intelligent. The second, I should say, is to have a well-stocked mind, which means having knowledge of literatures and literary traditions other than that into which one was born; possessing several languages; and acquiring a more than nodding acquaintance with history, philosophy, and theology—to be, in brief, learned. To be both highly intelligent and learned is not all that common. Eliot claimed for himself—and this by implication, for he was a modest man—only the former.Read more
I'm pleased to report that I’ve just returned from the Evanston Public Library saleroom empty-handed. The saleroom is off the main lobby and contains used books, donated to the library, which sell for a mere 50 cents. Not all the books in the saleroom are serious—junky novels predominate—but a fair number of superior books show up. The library is less than a block from my apartment. When passing it, I find it difficult not to step inside to check the saleroom for a book I don’t need but nevertheless buy.Read more
The great American fraud that dare not speak its name, though anyone who owns a television set is aware of it, is college athletics. Amateur though they are supposed to be, the only thing truly amateur about them is that they do not pay the (supposed) students who play them, at least not directly.Read more
Men, it is said, do not like to go to doctors. Clearly I qualify here. I have long considered myself a Christian Scientist, minus the Christian part. A realist in my taste in fiction, I am a fantasist in my views about physiology. I prefer, that is, to pretend that I do not have such organs as a liver, spleen, and kidneys, and like to think of the duodenum as a doo-wop group from the late 1950s.Read more
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