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The Middle of My Tether
Joseph Epstein
Familiar Essays
Published by W. W. Norton in 1983
Book Review by Bob Matherne ©2002


The idiomatic expression "at the end of my tether" refers to being at the extreme limits of one's abilities or endurance. This book represents Joseph Epstein squarely in the middle of his tether with ample room to amble about. This book is a random walk with Epstein through some of his favorite subjects, "About Face", "Ephemeral Verities", and "Bookless in Gaza", and a random walk with Epstein is like dancing lessons from God.

We discover that Epstein loves books (he reads while walking as Macaulay did). In his own words, "Books are an addiction that, when aroused in earnest, is rarely calmed." His attempt to survive an entire day without reading ("nothing but stop signs") is humorous to those of us suffering the same affliction. We laugh when he confesses, "my afternoons, evenings, and weekends were all booked."

Epstein gets letters and reveals to us that the arrival of the postman is a highlight of his daily routine. He bemoans the fading away of letter writing and shares with us a sample of the letters (kind and unkind) he has received. He also shares his favorite quotes from men of letters in response to angry letters they have received:

Voltaire - "Dear Sir, I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me."

H.L. Mencken's pre-printed postcard - "Dear Sir or Madam, you may or may not be right."

In "You Take Manhattan" he points out that Manhattan is a great place to visit, a great place to live, and a lousy place to write. Most writers leave the city for the seashore and other faraway places to do their best writing. He quotes Walt Whitman, "a great place for harvest, but a poor place for farming."

Some of the best parts of the book are his collection of quotes. An example is his quote of Desmond MacCarthy, "It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas." He has done just that in this book. And when the dancing is over and the music has faded away, you may start looking for an order blank to sign up for the next set of lessons.

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