Some who followed Mr. Epstein’s career saw a contradiction between his left-leaning politics – often apparent in his own writing for The New York Review of Books – and his love of luxury: Montecristo cigars, custom-made shoes, fine food and, for his home libraries in Lower Manhattan and Sag Harbor, mainly hardcover books.
He saw nothing contradictory in that, however. His prevailing ambition to reach a wide audience with books that were both intellectually satisfying and affordable could be boiled down to a populist’s wanting the best for everyone.
Mr. Epstein saw the digital universe as a potential ally in that pursuit, whether through electronic books or on-demand printing. In 2000, he said in an interview on the PBS program “The Open Mind” that publishers “throw a book out into the retail marketplace without any idea where it’s going to go.”
“Barnes & Noble orders a book from Random House, we print 10, 15, 20 thousand copies,” he continued, “but who knows where and on what shelf and what clerks are going to open the package and whether they’re going to know what the books are about or whom they’re intended for? We don’t know that.
“That explains,” he continued, “why so many books are returned unsold from booksellers to publishers. And why it’s so hard, sometimes, to find the book you’re looking for in a bookstore. And why it’s so hard for authors to find their way to their appropriate readers. But in this other system, you will have targeted markets for each author. The technology makes that possible, and therefore it’s going to happen. Not today, but eventually. That’s going to make a whole new world. “
Mr. Epstein saw book publishing as more than a business, though. For him it was almost a calling, one that might struggle to turn a profit. Publishing, he said in the same interview, was “more comparable to what priests and teachers and some doctors do than to what people who become lawyers or businessmen or Wall Street brokers – what they do.
“It is a vocation, you feel you’re doing something extremely important, and it’s worth sacrificing for, because without books we wouldn’t know who we were.”
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a former senior book critic for The Times, died in 2018. William McDonald and Alex Traub contributed reporting.