• Yale University Press
  • Epstein is the one with the glasses, Raphael the one with the eyebrows.

“Knowing when to quit—that, I’d say, is the name of the game.”

Joseph Epstein wrote that in an essay called “I Like a Gershwin Tune.” You can find it in his 1998 collection Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Like most of Epstein’s personal essay collections, it was witty and erudite, and also warm. He considered subjects that seemed unworthy of consideration—naps, Anglophilia, the art of name-dropping, and in the case of “I Like a Gershwin Tune,” the popular music of his youth—and gave them depth and substance.

I read them all. In the mid-90s he was my teacher, first in a college seminar with the deadly sounding title Fundamentals of Prose, and then in an independent study, which amounted to sitting in the cafe at Borders talking about books. Listening to him talk was like reading him, except that he listened to us and appeared to take our opinions seriously and wrote encouraging comments on our weekly essays. So of course I wanted to read what he had written, to find out what kind of person was sitting at the head of the seminar table.