ENVY

Joseph Epstein, Author . Oxford Univ. $17.95 (109p) ISBN 978-0-19-515812-0

The Oxford University Press/New York Public Library Seven Deadly Sins series, of which Envy is the first volume, comes hot on the heels of Penguin's successful Lives, which provocatively pairs celebrated subjects with well-known writers in compact and accessible biographies. Unfortunately, Envy is insubstantial and unambitious even for its modest size. While it might have a seemed a good idea to get Epstein, author of the uneven but amusing Snobbery: The American Version, to address the related sin of envy, he does not seem to have anything very provocative to say about it. Derived from a public lecture, Epstein's opening chapters give a decent if unenlightening overview, larded with enough quotations from such greats as Schopenhauer and Lord Chesterfield to maintain interest. Over the course of 14 chapters, some of a few hundred words each, cliché turns up often (Shakespeare is "that most universal of writers," and Othello is about Iago, it turns out), yet the book's airy charm and lightly worn learning might work as diverting, high-toned amusement if not for the one-dimensionality of some of the ideas that emerge. For Epstein's notion of envy is ultimately that of the moneyed and powerful, who characterize any challenge to their power as being based on envy. Marxism? Envy. Feminism? Envy. The academy? Envy and "hopelessly radical political views." This kind of rhetoric might go over in a country club or cigar lounge, but in the world of ideas to which it is presumably addressed, it reads more like an example of the eighth deadly sin: smugness. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 08/11/2003
Release date: 08/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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