Neither the title nor the sub-title of this collection is very helpful in conveying the nature of its contents. To be against "the knack of knowing how to live" (one of author Phillip Lopate's definitions), to be opposed to living with zestful pleasure, provides, to be sure, some sense of the sometimes curmudgeonly irony that is one of the stances assumed by the author, but it doesn't begin to account for the unpredictable shift of tone and mood that characterizes the best of the 19 pieces gathered here. Nor does it help much to characterize these pieces as personal essays, since as the author observes in "What Happened to the Personal Essay?," one of the most interesting of them: "The personal or familiar essay is a wonderfully tolerant form, able to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy," and Lopate gives us examples of all of these and more.
Some, like "Shaving a Beard," "Art of the Creep," "Upstairs Neighbors," and "Reflections of Subletting," are short and humorous, more like material for shticks than the stuff of books. Others, like "Revisionist Nuptials," put their arm too familiarly around your shoulder and invite you to indulge yours and the author's cantankerousness and old-fashioned good sense. Here, for example, is a passage from the title essay reflecting on dinner parties: "What do people talk about at such gatherings? The latest movies, the priciness of things, word processors, restaurants, muggings and burglaries, private versus public schools, the fool in the White House (there have been so many fools in a row that this subject is getting tired), the undeserved reputations of certain better-known professionals in one's field, the fashions in investments, the investments in fashion. What is traded at the dinner-party table is, of course, class information. You will learn whether you are the avant-garde or rear guard of your social class, or, preferably, right in step." This is charming and chummy, but it lacks Thoreauvian indignation or Menckenian bite; it is merely glibly witty.