- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006


By Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 288 pages


It’s fitting that Joseph Epstein has written a book about friendship. He’s clearly the man for the job. Reading Mr. Epstein’s books — be they collections of essays, social criticism such as “Snobbery” or one of his collections of short stories — has always for me had the feel of being in a really good conversation, though a one-sided one, with an amiable and articulate friend.

Mr. Epstein taught literature and writing at Northwestern University for 30 years (and, he jokes, coached the Jewish wide receivers there). But there’s no hint of the dusty don in his writing. His style is intelligent and incisive, sometimes downright elegant, but always accessible. He’s witty but never condescending, cultured but never “high-brow.” A downright friendly read.

Don’t let the title of this book, Mr. Epstein’s 19th, put you off. It’s in no way a knock on friendship, though the author does catalogue some of friendship’s costs. “Friendship” is only an expose in that Mr. Esptein takes on some of the more sentimental cliches about it.

There are memorable lines in this book, but none suitable for a Hallmark greeting card. This isn’t a self-help or a how-to book, though the attentive reader of “Friendship” will surely emerge more sifted in this important subject, and perhaps a bit better at selecting and maintaining friends.

By book’s end, a reader will likely conclude, as has Mr. Epstein, that while friends are not always unalloyed blessings — they come with time-sapping obligations after all — life would be a pretty dreary business without them. Our friendships can be downright central in our lives. Mr. Epstein calls them “the strongest of relationships not bounded by or hostage to biology, which is to say, blood.”

The author gives us a concise history of friendship as well as a taxonomy of the various categories of friends: work friends, special interest friends, friends because they are friends with the spouse, friends because we grew up with them, all-purpose friends, et al.

Mr. Epstein never arrives at a definition of friendship — “The criteria for friendship can be set down only in so rough a way that they are all but useless” — but he parses the subject so thoroughly and so well we don’t miss the definition. He takes us through friendship according to the likes of Aristotle, Montaigne, Cicero, Samuel Johnson and Pliny without being dull or academic about it. This readable book is a theory-free zone.

In 19 chapters, Mr. Epstein analyzes friendship from every possible angle and tells how historical changes have altered the nature of friendship. He outlines how friendship changes from adolescence — the best years of friendship — through adulthood to the late 60s, where Mr. Epstein currently resides.

He touches on the difference between male and female friendships (no hugs or confessions from male friends please, says the author, no fan of the therapeutic society). He shows how marriage and children, work and our current high-tech, quick-cut society have changed and thrown obstacles in the path of friendship.

Mr. Epstein does all this without the tortured jargon and the statistical humbuggery that make the social sciences so arid and unprofitable to read. (In fact, if Mr. Epstein would just write more books of social criticism, we could close down university sociology departments and all be better off for it.)

“Friendship” is largely a first-person production, a literary trip through the Epstein friendships and what he’s gained, lost and learned from them. It’s rich with the Epstein anecdotes that enliven his previous books of social-criticism (“Ambition,” “Snobbery,” “Envy”), though perhaps with fewer laugh lines.

Mr. Epstein values humor and is a funny guy himself. In an article on his teaching career, he produces a great line from unpromising material, describing Joseph Conrad as “Henry James for people who like the outdoors.”

So it’s no surprise that Mr. Epstein values humor in his friends. He looks for a quality of seriousness in his friends, but this seriousness has to do with a concern for what is, and is not important, in a finite life. This kind of seriousness “does not preclude great good humor, whimsy, even clownishness.”

In explaining why he’s friends with a man with whom he has little in common other than age and sense of humor, the author says, “We laugh — he explosively, I giglingly — at the arbitrariness, orneriness, goofiness, sweetness, perversity, generosity, self-absorption, and magnanimity of human beings, qualities that, taken together, make plain the hopelessness of ever solving the puzzle of what constitutes human nature.”

Friends can survive all manner of divergent opinions, Mr. Epstein says, so long as they have something of “a congruent view of the human comedy.” Where friendship is concerned, an articulated point of view counts for more than a bunch of opinions, even when the opinions involve such heavy stuff as politics and religion.

The author deals with the often-asked question of whether men and women can be friends without that ole debel sex getting in the way. His answer is yes. This comes about, he says, mainly due to the acceptance, grudging in some quarters, of gender equality. Though this equality sometimes comes with the side-effect of competition, similar to the kind that often lurks just below the surface in male-male friendships.

In the forward to “Friendship,” Mr. Epstein expresses the hope that after his own chums read this book — doubtless many will — he’ll be “left with a sufficient number of friends, as the English say, to see me out.”

I’d say that’s a safe bet. This book establishes that Mr. Epstein knows a great deal worth knowing about friendship, and provides evidence that he likely has a very real talent for it as well.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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