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An Ode to Book Snobs

book snob 291x300 An Ode to Book Snobs

Some months ago, during my efforts to seek climate-controlled asylum from Melbourne’s oppressive summer days, I found myself in an independent bookshop known for its having both superior air conditioning and superior floor stock.

Not to mention a superiority complex.

Aware that my literary credibility was being assessed by the twin forces of the fauxhawked staff and the hipster/professorial customers, each toting a book written by an author whose name featured more diacritics than letters, I went straight for the (translated) classics section and dug about for something suitably obscure.

Which was not so hard, really, as this particular shop does not stock mass-market paperbacks. Its mainstream section is notable for just about every item’s being imbued with a Pulitzer or a Booker or a Nobel. The occasional bestseller glimpsed here and there is a thorn of bibliophilic affront, something endured only by being approached with a palpable sense of irony. (And a shelf-talker underscoring the point.)

It certainly is not the sort of shop that one would go to in search of a certain widely popular yet widely derided book whose title is redolent of a Dulux paint palette.

Needless to say, I looked on in interest over my copy of Summer in Baden-Baden as a harried-looking customer dashed into the shop seeking said volume posthaste.

Curiously, the name of this book—obviously verboten in this altar of the written word—was never actually mentioned in his negotiations with the moustachioed bookstore guy. A guy whose very aura of literariness would make even the most well read person question their bookish credentials.

The customer left the shop with several books that were a variation on the theme that he was after—I believe that Anais Nin was, ahem, on top—and though his original sought-after prize might have been amongst them, it certainly wasn’t his only purchase.

As I went back to parsing Tsypkin’s endless sentences (need proof of the Chomskyian concept of linguistic recursion? Look no further!) I found myself thinking about the influence of intellectual scrutiny.

I’m entirely aware that I’m inviting a skewering in the comments section, but in my opinion, the value of the book snob is severely underrated.

Discussions about the role of bookshop staff often revolve, perhaps erroneously, around the knowledge of such staff, when in fact I suspect that one of their most important attributes is actually the sense of literary accountability they instil within us.

People are egocentric. We seek validation and acceptance. We’re also aspirational.

I don’t want to be judged for purchasing crappy books.

So many of my purchases over the years have been influenced by my desire not to be viewed as some sort of intellectually bankrupt cretin. And in a similar vein, much of my reading—especially my public reading—is surely affected by the idea of being subjected to the scrutiny, real or perceived, possible or actual, of others around me.

People like me have historically lived in a biblio-panopticon, mindful that at any time an intellectual gatekeeper could pop up in the central tower of our literary lives and subject us to…well, probably to a tut-tut. Perhaps a raised eyebrow at worst.

But such a thing strikes terror into my nerdy little heart.

The concept of fearing being found wanting in an intellectual or bookish capacity probably sounds ludicrous to some, but book snobs—along with those ambassadors for other types of cultural snobbery—play an essential role in shaping and developing our intellectual, cultural and philosophical engagement.

And I think that now, more than ever, the tut-tutting, eyebrow-crooking book snob is needed.

We live in an era where book purchasing has become increasingly anonymous, and where, with the rise of reading on e-readers and other devices, reading itself has become increasingly anonymised.

And with anonymity comes the retreat of accountability and all that entails—typically either a bacchanal madness or sheer laziness. (The latter, most likely.) In a literary context, the result is the disengagement with the difficult, the strange, and the challenging.

The cycle is only worsened by that bane on the imaginative worlds of humanity: the internet recommendation engine. Because as Kurt Vonnegut would concur, there’s nothing quite like using a machine to quantify the inherently human capacity for taste and imagination.

By recommending only books that are similar to what you or others have previously purchased and liked, these engines serve the opposite purpose of what a bookshop staff member should: they provide suggestions that will inevitably and necessarily narrow towards a mean of the average, the safe, the dull, and the unchallenging.

This isn’t to suggest that people should only be reading free-verse poetry translated from Hungarian and printed upside-down on T-shirts in heat-activated ink.

However, without the occasional well-coiffed invigilator to sniffingly guide us away from the easy choices and on to another, perhaps more dangerous, but certainly more interesting path, it’s a worrying likelihood that we’ll never even have the chance to be exposed to such things.

Certainly, the haughty gaze of the literary snob can be an uncomfortable lens through which to be assessed. But when it comes to challenging people to enrich their intellectual lives, a little snobbery can go a long way.

So, I will continue to judge you by your choice of reading matter, and I hope that you’ll hold me to the same degree of literary accountability.

Because we owe it to our cultural acuity to openly and constructively critique each other’s intellectual lives.

Here’s to being a snob.

22 comments

  1. No, we need to accept that people can read whatever they want to and that it’s none of our business. When we judge others we’re allowing ourselves to feel superior, which is never a good look. We have no right to hold anyone accountable for what they choose to read and we certainly have no right to critique other’s intellectual lives. You may be a snob, but it’s no reason to feel proud.

  2. I don’t want a skewer, but I would like to know how to blow a raspberry effectively in print. Not at you, but at the faux-hawked snobs of the bookshop. I agree with you about the reductive nature of the ‘suggestions’ of machine-driven engines. They’re never going to stretch your boundaries and the idea that they are the only source of new book ideas for the great reading public is a little frightening, at best.

    But unlike your good self, I am much too long in the tooth to be intimidated by people who are more interested in looking down their noses than in education. A genuine book enthusiast, who reads widely themselves and sees the value in all good writing, whatever house, language or genre it’s written in, is a creature of great beauty and value and I would happily frequent any bookish venue in which they work. Or blog on which they write. But a bookshop that stocks only winners of the Vogel and the like is a bookshop that is more influenced by appearances than substance. I have a degree in literature. I suspect I have read quite as many obscure tomes as those young snobs. I have written essays on French surrealist poets – in French. And some of those tomes I enjoyed. (I especially liked one of the poets – Paul Eluard.) But some of them I thought were pretentious crap. There was a time when I could have argued most fluently and coherently about why I thought they were pretentious crap. But I don’t inhabit the hallowed halls of academe any more and now, I’d rather talk about things I like.

    The other problem I have with the prizes is that the contestants and winners are still overwhelmingly invfluenced by the prejudices and snobberies of old white guys. Even when some of the judges are women – because I suspect they suffer from the same disinclination to seem uneducated cretins (which is the automatic assumption of said old white guys when a woman has the temerity to disagree with them).

    I agree wholeheartedly that we should be prodded – possibly regularly and sharply – away from the easy and the familiar. But I am far from convinced that snobbery is the way to do it. For every person like you, who it prods in that direction, it frightens or disgusts dozens, maybe hundreds or thousands more, into the arms of the anonymous internet, where they are not sneered at for what they like. It drives them into exactly that safe zone that you are suggesting they should step out of.

    I feel about this much the way I feel about virulent evangalising of any kind. If the proponents were really interested in teaching or sharing, they would be less strident and more conversant. Book snobbery, like every form of extremism, is much more about feeling superior than it is about any genuine wish for enlightenment or enlargement of experience in others, or even simple sharing. And as such, I want no truck, or any other kind of vehicle, with it. (And for what it’s worth, that last line was pinched from a favourite author who would not, I’m sure, be on the radar of your book snobs).

  3. As a librarian, the book snob in me has been (mostly) subjugated because we have to be respectful of everyone’s choices (Library staff, though, do tend to talk snobbishly about patrons who borrow only DVDs, no books at all!), but I find I do care in some way about the opinions of strangers on my reading material and that that awareness can sometimes nudge me into buying something outside of my comfort zone. (Whether I ever read it, is a separate question!)
    I didn’t think you would ever get skewered in the comments, but I guess I was wrong about that!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Laurie. It’s lovely to hear a librarian’s perspective! No bother about the comments skewering–it’s always great to see people engaging with what I write, and I’m happy that people feel that this site is a forum where they can freely express their thoughts and ideas, no matter how much they disagree with me. :)

      I think that the opinions of strangers/the literati really do serve a purpose, although I’d never suggest that we should *only* read from an approved list of Great Literature as compiled by these people. My sense of it is similar to yours: that being mindful of certain movements within literature and across readerships encourages us to stretch our reading boundaries, but that intellectual impunity should never factor into these things. I think it’s human to want to share what we value with other people, but also to acknowledge that not everyone is going to value the same things that we do.

      I agree, too, that it’s a personal thing, which is why (as you’ve picked up on) I’ve taken pains to emphasise in the article that these sorts of sensitivities are really only applicable to people who already see themselves as a particular type of reader, and who aspire to a certain type of readership status. Certainly, there’s a type of exclusivity involved, but the flip-side is that exclusivity also brings with it inclusion–and readers like me obviously value being a part of a particular group of readers, as well as being able to share certain reading experiences and knowledge.

      • Does membership of that particular group of readers necessarily require you not to be a member of any other group, though? Does a willingness to read and talk about the obscure and the difficult preclude one from reading and talking about the less obscure? Or a need to hide one’s less obscure reading? Actually, I’m sure in some circles, it does. But I’ve lost interest in those circles. If my friends only read the obscure and difficult, naturally, I wouldn’t expect them to talk about books other than those. And I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be interested in hearing me talk about them. But if they looked down on me for taking an interest in books they knew nothing about, I doubt they’d be friends for long. I’ll happily tailor my conversation to the company, but that’s not the same thing as embracing exclusion as a positive.

        This is something I have given quite some thought to. As I said, I have a degree with an English major. My literary background is that rarified atmosphere of the obscure and difficult and exclusive. Yet I am published in the genre of romance. I am well aware that by taking that publishing step, I have placed myself forever beyond the pale with some of the people (and kinds of people) with whom I used to share academic equality (both literally and in their minds).

        I admit, that perception gave me some pause. When you come from one world, to deliberately place yourself in another – at least in the view of those in the first world – can be frightening. But I chose to ignore that fear, because I can’t live my life restricted by the opinion of people who lack the imagination to see that is is possible to inhabit both worlds.

        I’m sure I used to be a book snob. But I’ve expanded my horizons. I like it better out here in non-exclusive land, where my bedside table book stack can include (reading top to bottom, at this moment) Nancy Mitford, Shakespeare, Stella Gibbons, Bronwyn Parry, Muriel Barbery, Jennifer St George, Ben Elton, PJ O’Rourke, Stephen Greenblatt and Nicholas Wade (the last two being non-fiction) and think nothing of it

  4. Next time I’m in Melbourne I must visit this store.

  5. Saw your tweet and found this discussion intriguing. There’s enough judging and snobbery in the world (and among book bloggers too, sadly). I refuse that my reading life be any less enjoyable because of book snobs.

    I guess this particular bookstore has a niche. I try to steer clear of the places where I’m not comfortable in, but that’s just me. :)

    • Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to comment. :)

      I’m curious about your reference to book snobs making your reading life less enjoyable. Do you mean the way that book snobs go about their snobby daily business? Or that the books that they recommend will be unenjoyable, so aren’t of interest? Having worked extensively around software developers, I have to say that divorcing content from delivery can often be the way to go!

      Regarding bookshops as comfortable spaces: on a 43C day, I’ll venture into any shop that has air conditioning! That said, I think there’s something really interesting in the notion of bookshops as safe spaces that could make for a post in itself. Thanks for raising the idea!

  6. Interesting discussion – I have to say I have personally always sat uncomfortably somewhere between literature snobbery (I love some of the classic ‘greats’ and love rich, fascinating writing) and an appreciation of good writing in many forms – including highly ‘popular’ genres. I used to feel more self-conscious about this, but over the years I’ve found that life is to short to pretend I like books I actually don’t (and find intensely wanky – the literary snob world actually nauseates me at time, as all forms of elitism do). At the same time, I reserve the right to rant excessively about books I find terribly written and underservingly successful – often it is interesting, though, to discuss what *makes* them popular.
    Thus, serial contrarian I am, and remain content to be. But I read for my own pleasure, not other people’s or a desire to seem smart to them – and I catch myself any time I find that creeping in to my behaviour. The result may be I’m never in (any) ‘in crowd’ but I’ve made peace with that.

    • I’m a little bit like you, Kirstie: I tend to straddle both, and typically vacillate back and forth between high-brow literature and more popular genres. The same is as true of my writing as it is my reading. I completely agree that there’s plenty of stuff of questionable value in either camp, and that it’s always a good idea to approach anything with a view to assessing it on its own merits, rather than a validity superimposed by some external group.

      I do find that the elitism cuts both ways, though: just as many snooty types won’t deign to touch mainstream/genre fiction, there are just as many genre aficionados who pooh-pooh the literary/classic stuff on the basis that it’s perceived as elite and affected, and therefore unworthy as a result. Both are forms of elitism and snobbery, in my mind.

      I’m a natural contrarian as well, and I think it’s partly because I try to come to things through a questioning/critical viewpoint–I’m naturally cynical and try to make up my own mind about things. That said, no wonder no one wants to buy my books. ;)

  7. I don’t care what people read. I only care that they read.

    • Probably wise words to live by, Sandra!

      Although, to play devil’s advocate, since that’s apparently what I’m all about today: does reading truly matter at all? Or is it more about story-telling and ideas? What about cultures that prize oral story-telling traditions or other communicative norms such as dance and art?

  8. Having spent much effort over the past two years actively suppressing or re-educating my inner literary snob, I can say whole-heartedly I agree with Imelda and Sandra. The truth is, my inner literary snob is so entrenched and superior it continues to deride as I read a commercial paperback (usually written by a friend), but it will not admit defeat when I pick up something award winningly challenging and simply not get it! I think I need an exorcist. I certainly don’t need the real thing in a damned bookshop.
    People are predictable creatures. They expand their boundaries in baby steps. One enjoyed book inevitably leads to another (thank goodness) and too great a challenge will stun them back to DVD’s for who knows how long. I say a narrow opinion on what’s worthy is just that – a narrow opinion. Thanks Stephnie.

    • Thanks for visiting, Kate, and for taking the time to share your thoughts. I identify with your ambivalence completely, and certainly deal with similar demons! My background is in linguistics, not literature, and just about all of my published fiction is speculative fiction, with the odd children’s work thrown in for good measure, so I’m certainly no stranger to mainstream/popular fiction, and yet, that little voice of damnation chatters away in my head as well. I think it’s not so much that I have a problem with popular fiction, but I have a problem with the fact that more and more what we read is dictated not necessarily by taste but by marketing departments. (See, for example, the recent JK Rowling reveal.) That bothers me an inordinate amount.

      We’re definitely socialised (or at least, with my aspirational migrant background, I am!) to value knowledge, learning, and to improve ourselves, and I think that those values play a huge role in our perception of what comprises big L literature.

      I love your idea of N + 1 when it comes to expanding our boundaries, and that’s basically what I’m arguing here–exposure to new and challenging things in that hope that people will have the opportunity to try something different. Cultural narrowing works in both directions–those who exclusively read Latin classics are in a way those who exclusively read cozy mystery novels, although I’d argue that the former exist within a context that perhaps encourage a greater breadth and depth of reading across different genres, text types, and eras.

  9. Clarissa T /

    I love this post! I hope I don’t offend you by telling you that I don’t think you are a book snob. I think you are well-read across all genres and very open minded in your book choices– which is why you are such a great writer.

    I wish I had more shame when it came to my reading choices, but with an amazon account and a kindle, no one ever has to know… :)

    • Thanks, Clarissa! I’m not offended at all–this was a pretty tongue-in-cheek post, as you’ve probably figured. ;) I do read across just about every genre, and that’s something that I recommend that most people do. Without exposing yourself to new things, it’s impossible to property contextualise your reading and the ideas and thoughts that come with it.

      I think that after working on academic journals for so long, you’re probably allowed the odd bit of popular material!

  10. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out /

    I came to terms with my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction some time ago and no longer care particularly what people think of what I choose to read. I do agree that trying something new and stretching yourself is a good idea I just don’t necessarily agree that all paths should lead to the classics or big L literature.

  11. I hate book snobs! I had some experiences with them in the past that me have an aversion for them. Not all of them, of course, but a certain pretentious category.
    I am perfectly aware of my comfort zone, I usually get myself lost in it. But I am also aware of the entire world of books awaiting me there and that I’ll not be able to read them all. I just hope that Umberto Eco (see who I use there ;) ) vision of heaven would apply to me too, a library containing all the books in the world and the eternity at my disposal to read them. I go often, not as often as I would like, but still go outside that comfort zone. But I stumbled way too many times over book snobs who judged me only on the book I read at that particular moment or the ones I picked from the bookshops’ shelves. I remember a particular one, when I was in high-school, who asked why I was wasting my time with Stephen King and was very surprised to learn that both Stephen King and Dostoevsky were my favorites and “Demons” my favorite book to that date. It happened when fantasy become available more in Romania after the 1989 Revolution. Pretentious book snobs lectured me in the “true” ways of reading without knowing what I did and didn’t read until then. I used and still use to shut these persons out, to ignore them completely and every time I deny their recommendations. So, it doesn’t work for me.
    Of course, there are a couple of book snobs I know who are truly an example to follow. They don’t tend to look down upon the fellow readers. But they do try to help to discover new books and authors worth reading, the conversations I have with them open new horizons. But then again, maybe I have something against smug people and that might be a reason for not liking most of the book snobs.
    In conclusion, I am perfectly comfortable with my reading choices. I openly admit that I equally love Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, R.A. Salvatore, Dostoevsky, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Mircea Eliade, only to name a few. But don’t try to convince me that my reading choices are not intellectual because then we will have nothing to say to each other. You can call me, to some degree, a literary hermit. ;)

  12. Well, I’m a book snob. If it has a sticker on it saying it’s won a major literary award, I steer clear of it. ;-) Unless, of course, it’s an award for genre fiction or children’s fiction. Literary fiction doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel the need to say I read it to justify my other reading choices. I love Shakespeare because he was funny, sad, made dirty jokes in his plays, created characters you could care about and was probably the sort of guy you could have a beer with in the pub. The fact that his language is gorgeous is the icing on the cake. I love Dickens for the characters and the touches of humour in even the most serious novels. And so on. Modern literary fiction – meh! They need to learn from the past, starting with telling a story. When a book is raved about for its “beautiful language” but not its story, I refuse to go near it.

  13. There’s something rather joyful in meeting other book snobs though, isn’t there? You can discuss books and their meaning in an unequivocally literary manner without feeling like you have to dumb down your opinions… I must admit I love it!

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