Sunday, June 28, 2015


I love essays.  Short, no-commitment non-fiction, often witty; essays are serious reading for people who don't want to do serious reading.  I recently read these three collections of essays.

Portrait of Max Beerbohm by Sir William Newzam Prior Nicholson

And Even Now by Max Beerbohm.  Max Beerbohm was an early twentieth century caricaturist, essayist, and wit.  His name kept popping up in everything I was reading at one point, so I added this book of essays to my list.  This collection is a good illustration on how essays have a relatively short shelf life.  I know there are great essayists whose work has transcended time, but I fear that Beerbohm may not have been one of them.  These essays seem mostly irrelevant.

There's an essay about "Kolniyatsch," a literary "star" that not even google or the UVA library catalog have heard of.  Maybe it's some kind of joke that I'm too ignorant to get?  There's an essay about servants in which he muses that butlers have been getting younger and thinner lately. A piece about a series of luncheons with Algernon Swinburne.  Joseph Epstein, in a biographical essay about Max Beerbohm, calls him, "The world's greatest minor writer." Epstein holds Beerbohm in high esteem, and would probably not appreciate my opinion.  I haven't given up on Beerbohm entirely, and his novel Zuleika Dobson is also on my list.

The Middle of my Tether: Familiar Essays by Joseph Epstein.  My book list has a line item for "essays by Joseph Epstein"  and my library had several volumes to choose from. Browsing these was how I found the essay about Max Beerbohm mentioned above.  I chose The Middle of my Tether because it seemed the most general.  This book was a great pleasure to read.  It is funny but not facetious, serious but not ponderous, literary but not pedantic.  Published in 1983, these essays, while certainly far from irrelevant, still show that the essay is the sushi of literary genres.  Epstein writes about cliche and the modern reader can't help thinking what he'd have to say about hashtags.  An essay about the decline of letter writing, from the time before email.  An essay that asks, "What is Vulgarity" written without the context of social media and reality TV.  This essay was my favorite. We tend to view vulgarity as a bad thing, but Epstein points out that vulgarity is the garlic of society. Overpowering at times, but wouldn't life be boring without it?  Fittingly, the last essay in the collection is about the future.

Wry Martinis by Christopher Buckley.  This collection of essays was published in 1997, and were a bit disappointing--the first half of them, anyway.  They're breezy, humorous little essays, mostly covering various issues-of-the-moment in the early nineties.  I'm sure they were amusing at the time they were published, but now they seem even more irrelevant than Max Beerbohm's.  There's a drunken, fictional debate between Bill Clinton and "George Bush."  (No need to identify Bush with the H.W. middle initials at the time this essay was written.)  There's a tongue-in-cheek letter of recommendation for a two year old to an exclusive preschool.  The practice of getting one's kids into competative preschools hasn't stopped, but we are over marveling about it.  There's a facetious copy of the New York Times Best Sellers list.  (Number one in fiction is Wank and File by Tom Clancy.  OK--that did make me laugh.)  There's a dialogue from the original Star Trek in which vital information for the crew has been replaced with a VCR instruction manual.

The second half of Wry Martinis is more interesting.  There's an essay about what it's like to land a plane on an aircraft carrier--something I've always been curious about.  Buckley writes about his experience riding as a passenger with the USAF Thunderbirds, and having the presence of mind to turn off the self-cam every time he had to vomit.  There's a surreal cruise up the Amazon with Malcolm Forbes, the exiled king of Bulgaria, and--Cville people take note-- John and "Pat" Kluge, who appears on deck with a boa constrictor draped around her arms.  One of the Amazon customer reviewers seems quite put out by the fact that the second half of Wry Martinis is not as funny as the first half.  My own opinion is exactly the opposite.

I  haven't posted much about books lately because I'm still reading Ulysses which means I have less time for other things.  I'm wading through a dense section of my book list, so I won't get a break after Ulysses, but will have several other big reading endeavors.  Also, I've decided to dispense with posting about books on Fridays, and instead will write book posts whenever I happen to have one prepared.


  1. I like essays and short story collections. I've been reading a few books about musicians that were supposed to be quick and easy reads and I find them utterly boring. Might be time to just cut my losses and not finish them.

  2. "Short, no-commitment non-fiction, often witty; essays are serious reading for people who don't want to do serious reading."

    What a perfect description! It seems I'm always trying to add more essays to my reading .

  3. Colney Hatch --- huge ?Victorian 'madhouse' near London.... I wonder if this was M Beerbohm's legpull??

    1. I think so. I just don't have the cultural literacy to understand what he was getting at.