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In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage Paperback – September 23, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Life is not easy for me being a snob and a reverse snob simultaneously, writes Epstein (Friendship) in this engaging, irascible collection. The longtime editor of the American Scholar is indeed omnidirectional in his disdain—nature was overrated, he sniffs while driving through the Pacific Northwest—but some targets get extra attention. Chief among them are allegedly overrated intellectuals like Mortimer Adler (a clown savant with a coarse and deeply vulgar mind), Edmund Wilson (a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem, a nearly perpetual erection and a mean streak) and Harold Bloom (nearly perfect unreadability). Modern America is condemned for its perpetual adolescence and aversion to Henry James. And the feminists, Marxists, queer theorists and other hacks running the Modern Language Association are lashed for replacing literary aesthetics with trendy politics in university English departments (a critique that is stated more than shown). Epstein goes easier on actual (and dead) producers of literature in appreciative essays on Keats, Proust, Truman Capote and Max Beerbohm. And he's downright fond of fixtures in his own life, from a favorite Chinese restaurant to his dad, a true adult who wore black socks and business shoes to the beach. Throughout, Epstein cuts the cantankerousness with wry humor and perceptive erudition. (Sept. 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Epstein's essays have appeared in venues as diverse as the Atlantic Monthly and Commentary; his books include short story and essay collections, a brief life of Alex de Tocqueville, and popular treatises on snobbery, friendship, and envy. He has taught English and writing and served for 23 years as the editor of American Scholar. A writer of intellectual rigor, strong and often grating opinions, and high self-regard, Epstein is a consummate stylist, and this is his most adventurous essay collection to date. Epstein analyzes his 33-year habit of keeping a journal. In literary essays that can serve as models for the form, he illuminates overlooked aspects of Proust, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Max Beerbohm. He is at once vicious and hilarious as he attacks Mortimer Adler and Harold Bloom. A delving thinker, Epstein can also be flip, even juvenile when writing of women and sex. But even when his truculence feels gratuitous, he writes so darn well that one can't help but keep reading. Zingers abound, as do splendid analogies and metaphors, and the illuminations far outweigh the diminutions. Seaman, Donna --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 23, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547085745
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547085746
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,177,950 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Epstein saved me when I was in the bush of Jamaica WI for two years. I read every essay he wrote. I have never missed any of his books since, it's so much like hanging with a friend whose foibles and brilliance you, meaning I, already know.

Maybe because I've read him so closely, wherever his essays and stories appear, I felt at times like I had read essays here before. Maybe they were published elsewhere? If so, I didn't find that written into the book. Or, more likely, I just know his stories, proclivities and his style so well.

In a time when few read the great writers of yore, you can learn so much from any of Joseph Epstein's essay books. How much he loves Henry James and why, for example. Anyway, the "kid's turning 70" and all his readers care.

Now, one thing I always marvel over his Epstein's genuine good humor. He's a kinda mild guy. Anyone more prone to rage would not be so sanguine about The American Scholar which he edited for almost 23 years and then was fired. Man, one huge mistake imo. Sorry, Joseph E., you would never write IMO but then again, you probably do not come to Amazon to check your readers' comments. All I can say is that you are so smart and not just a little famous either. You matter to readers everywhere, so I believe. (Another line that would have the writer of these essays cringing.)
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I started with those essays flagged as "attacks" (on Mortimer Adler, Harold Bloom, and Edmund Wilson, respectively), because - let's be honest - a skillful intellectual skewering of a suitably pompous target is usually pretty entertaining. But Epstein wields a bludgeon, not a rapier, and his animosity against his targets feels way too personal. For one thing, Adler is a former boss of his, and he doesn't seem to realise that trying to settle scores with a former employer through public attack just makes him (Epstein) look petty. Particularly when part of the attack is to ridicule Adler for his physical clumsiness, and for his failure to pass Columbia's mandatory swim test.

Epstein is also way too fond of the throwaway remark that plunges the stiletto into the ribcage. For instance:

"I do not know of any genuine contribution that Mortimer Adler made to serious philosophy.."
"I don't believe Susan Sontag's celebrity finally had much to do with the power or cogency of her ideas."
"Wisdom, in a critic, is never excess baggage. Edmund Wilson, it begins to be clear, traveled light", having previously characterized Wilson as "a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem, a nearly perpetual erection, and a mean streak".

There are far too many of these - often completely gratuitous - asides, whose characteristic feature, aside from the nastiness, appears to be that they are invariably directed at people who have been more successful than Epstein.

And for all that he purports to take down others for the 'pompous' nature of their writing, his own tone in the essays "The Perpetual Adolescent" and "The Culture of Celebrity" pretty much defines old fogeydom.
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Format: Hardcover
Joseph Epstein is a rare treasure in the 21st century: an old-style essayist who makes the English language sparkle with his thoughtful phrasing. He's at his best revealing himself through episodes in his own life, rather than the external world. He's probably least comfortable talking about himself, but they are his best essays, covering issues from aging to insomnia.

Epstein is extremely modest about his distinguished background, so don't pass up this book just because of the cover artwork. I can't explain the publisher's choice, but the book reads better with the dustjacket removed.

Helen Gallagher, author Release Your Writing: Book Publishing, Your Way
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read Epstein's pieces in the Wall St. Journal and have become a fan. He is a wonderful writer and has written much on a variety of subjects. This book is a collection of articles or essays, so some are too short. For example, I would have liked a longer piece about Max Beerbohm. But that's ok. Epstein is astute, concise, well read, and transmits his knowledge with ease and economy.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joseph Epstein's personal essays revealed much about the man that I did not know. Wonderful, biting essays about famous writers and philosophers, together with laugh-aloud humor--what more could I ask for? I highly recommend In a Cardboard Belt.
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Format: Hardcover
These essays are among the best I know. Epstein has an eye for the interesting subject, and a great intellect to work on it. He has a terrific sense of humor and surprises again and again with it. It is rare that a book has made me laugh outloud as much as I have in this one. Epstein also is a very smart reader, and he brings passages from the writings of others which are often extraordinary. He is a street- wise writer and his knowledge of everyday realities blends well with his concern for overriding themes regarding the human condition. He is too when he is being generous one of the finest of literary critics. His essay on Isaac Singer in this work is a small masterpiece which seeks to explain why Epstein thinks the writings of Singer will live on much longer than that of any other living writer. Epstein is good when he praises and speaks of the writers he loves, Henry James, Beerbohm, Proust, Santayana. But the three essays in this work which are hatchet jobs the ones on Mortimer Adler, Edmund Wilson, and Harold Bloom did not much impress me. It is not that Epstein is wrong about the difficulty of Bloom's writing and its frequent pretentiousness. But he does not have the good grace to speak a bit about Bloom's vast knowledge of literature, his passion in reading.
In the closing essay of the work Epstein speaks of his years as editor of the American Scholar',and the joy he had in writing ninety- three articles for this publication. He too has an essay in which he analyzes in a telling way the reasons why academic life is filled with disappointments. He did not love his own career as teacher and sees it pretty much as a waste. What he loves to be and what he defines his love in terms of is writing.
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