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But much like poet Henry David Thoreau, who remarked how he had “travelled a good deal in Concord,” I also explored a few little-known local sites. These visits became feature stories about places rich in literary history, such as Savannah, Georgia, Oxford, Mississippi, and New Orleans.May I suggest that you knock your head against the wall.
During my years as a newspaper books editor, I periodically made regional literary pilgrimages close to my Mobile, Alabama, home.
Its library (alas, since moved) was housed in a marvelous 1930 edifice that was a scaled-down version of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia statehouse.
I have since reflected on what a perfect environment that was for an introduction to Epstein, perhaps one of our best contemporary essayists.
Leaving aside that it was a Catholic institution and Epstein is Jewish, everything else resonated—the building’s distinguished architectural pedigree, the reverential respect with which older books were retained and made accessible, and the august reading room with everything arranged around the sacred act of reading.
One such essay in particular, “A Case of Academic Freedom” (1986), is a cri de coeur against a specific instance of political correctness at Northwestern University, where Epstein taught English for decades, but it is lengthy, arcane, and dated to boot.
Happily, it’s the exception rather than the rule here.Little yellow bulbs illuminated the aisles, and the air was suffused with the smell of old paper and leather.A narrow staircase enclosed in wire mesh ran through the center, with an electric dumbwaiter alongside.He grew up comfortably enough in a “predominantly Jewish, wholly middle-class atmosphere.” His father was a salesman, and both parents practiced an attitude of bemused detachment toward his daily affairs.When he once told his mother, “a highly intelligent woman of even temperament,” that he was bored, her response was, “Really?They are divided into thematic chapters on memoir, culture, the arts, education, language, magazines, and intellectuals.Within these categories, the selections span an interesting array of subjects—old age, stand-up comics, contemporary poetry, intellectual freedom, the , the liberal arts, Walter Cronkite.His attire then was classic preppie: “a brown Harris tweed jacket, a maroon cashmere sweater, a careful rep tie over a white button-down oxford cloth shirt, Cambridge gray trousers with a small buckle in the back, and plain-toed cordovan shoes.” His socks were black “and rode high up on the calf.” If this is what readers familiar with his later career trajectory would expect, Epstein insists in another essay that his education at Illinois and later at the University of Chicago was “slapdash, wildly uneven, and chiefly autodidactical.” But, he assures the reader, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.The most a university can really be expected to do, he says, “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.” Many of these pieces turn on the academy and the life of the mind.Grand Palladian windows surrounded the cavernous reading room, and the books, many dating from the nineteenth century, were snugly housed in a six-level shelf system at one end.These stacks were a delicious haven for any book lover.