Joan Kent, former president of the Library Board of Trustees and also of the Library Foundation, talked with Professor Epstein at the conclusion of the program. Photo by Will Wright
Queens College Professor of English and Port resident Edmund Epstein recently lectured at the library on the subject "What, exactly, is a Classic?" This well-attended event, sponsored by the Friends of the Port Washington Library, commemorated the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Ruth D. Bogen memorial collection and the purchase of the 1,000th volume under its aegis.
Prof. Epstein, a neighbor and friend of Ruth Bogen, began his thought-provoking remarks by commenting, "Ruth was one of the classiest people I knew. She was a classics major in college and member of our reading group for a long time. She never let us get away with anything. Sam [Bogen], too."
Epstein said, "This question of what is a classic turns out to be a very complicated business." He traced the meaning back to the ancient Romans, where it meant those at the top and later best in category, through the Middle Ages where it meant in the classical tradition of Greek and Rome, to modern times. He pointed out that the word has now and has had many different meanings. He said, "I began to work in a different idea of what a classic is. If you look at the functions of language, the main thing is that they assert things about the outside world." He added that language is our way of trying to make sense of the things in the world that we see. "I am making sense of the world through my brain," he said "It's a way of solving problems." Literature, he commented, is a society's way of solving puzzles that have not been solved by individual members. "It is classic because it is preserved and it is preserved until the puzzle is solved." Epstein said that his definition of a classic is not limited to literature-it applies to the visual arts, science, history, music, and other fields as well.
"Why are they preserved as classics?" he rhetorically asked. "It is not because of the information. What they contain is the process of arriving at a solution. It is not so much the solution of what you are reading about, but how to go to a solution." During the discussion period, Epstein clarified that one has to wait at least 50 years before determining whether a work that has been preserved is truly a classic. In response to another questioner, he opined that a work does not have to be of high quality to be considered a classic. He said, "The works educate us about understanding the world. That is why they are classics."
He used as an example of a classic one of the books in the Bogen collection, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a book that Epstein was instrumental in introducing into the United States when he worked at Capricorn as an editor. The hardcover edition of this work was the 1,000th volume added to the Bogen collection. Golding wrote the novel in response to his experiences in the British Royal Navy during the Second World War. Epstein explained that Golding was surprised and horrified at how the people on his own boat behaved - the betrayals, the power struggles, and so forth. Epstein said, "What does Lord of the Flies teach us? It teaches us how people behave." He added, "You don't start writing at 44 unless you have something important to say. Golding definitely had something to say." In summary, Epstein said, "The book makes us think. It teaches us. We may agree or not, but we must pay attention." That, he said, is a characteristic of all classics.
During a spirited discussion period, Epstein elaborated on his ideas, pointing out how his definition of a classic can be applied to film, music, different genres of literature, science, medicine, religion and other disciplines. He concluded by saying that "a classic is one that depicts human behavior through the ages." As a prime example, he cited the Bible, regardless of one's religion, He said, "The Bible describes everything. It is one of the most honest things I have ever read."
Professor Epstein, a Port Washington resident, is a noted academic, author and editor who is know internationally for his scholarship on James Joyce and the language of literature. He has published many books and articles, and lectures widely nationally and internationally. Epstein, who got his B.A. from Queens College, M.A. from Yale, and Ph.D. from Columbia University, leads a Port Washington-based reading group that is affectionately known as "Eddie's group." Reading group members, students, and others who know him have described him as "brilliant," "charming," and "knowledgeable." Last year the group focused on Joyce; this year it is studying poetry. Said one group member, "He gives a context for everything."
In her introduction to the lecture, Amy Bass, president of the Friends of the Port Washington Library, talked about Ruth Bogen and the collection. Bass said, "She was smart and charming, and had a deep love of books. She was a longtime board member of the Friends of the library." Bass added, "She felt that a library should be, first and foremost, a place for books." Following Ruth's death from ALS in 2000, her husband Sam Bogen proposed initiating a collection in her name featuring classics. As mentioned, the collection now contains 1,000 volumes, some in languages other than English. Each volume has a nameplate with a day lily-Ruth's favorite flower. Bass explained that, although the Ruth D. Bogen memorial fund is administered by the Friends, the library itself chooses the books. She added that the gift from Sam was the largest gift that the Friends ever received and one of the largest to the library. Bass said, "We are eternally grateful to the Bogen family." Port Washington-Epstein-Bogen