Intellectuals in public life stand on unsteady footing. Their employers—all of us—are suspicious, and often rightly so. Knowledge can breed overconfidence, imprudence, aloofness, and moral myopia. Yet there are examples of those who possess wisdom that is both contemplative and practical, who can win political success while being a boon to their country. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one. Edmund Burke was another.
Joseph Epstein is one of those rare men capable of writing well about any subject. I mean “any subject” almost literally: if Epstein were assigned the task of creating the instruction manuals for the assembly of IKEA furniture, their prose would greet the reader like an old friend. These instruction booklets would inevitably be anthologized, the best among them—the cherry nightstand, or perhaps the walnut side table—bound together under a charming title such as The Nordic Cabinetmaker or Practically Almost Wood. Critics discussing Epstein’s Swedish Period would suggest that he somberly reflected the human condition by noting the impossibility of constructing that armoire without dropping and losing a screw or two.
In the age of the fantasy blockbuster, it’s easy to forget the ubiquity of science fiction during the postwar era. During the Cold War and the Space Race, the perception was that Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov were predicting the future one story at a time. (This is no exaggeration. Reader’s Digest, then the most popular magazine in America, called Clarke “The Prophet of the Space Age” in 1969.) But, in this century, automation and advances in computer processing have eliminated swathes of middle class jobs and, as a result, major portions of the reading public, liberal and conservative, have lost their faith in the redemptive power of technology.