An appeal on behalf of Book Snobs

Spare a thought for us poor Book Snobs. No-one likes us.

Go to any part of the web where books are discussed, or talked about, or even just mentioned in passing, and you’ll find broadsides against Book Snobs. I won’t bother supplying links: just do a search on “book” and “snob” – or, for a little variety, “literary” and “snobbery” – and you’ll find there’s no shortage of hits. Everyone is agreed: Book Snobs are terrible people! No-one, but no-one, has a single good word to say for us Book Snobs.

Perhaps I should stop being a Book Snob. I’m not quite sure how I became one in the first place. It’s something you get to be without even realising it. For instance, I look through some book that is very popular, think it shoddily written, and am foolish enough to say openly what I think; and even such folly marks me out as a Book Snob. Do I not realise that millions upon millions of people enjoy The Da Vinci Code, or 50 Shade of Grey, or whatever? Who am I to look down on other people, and on their pleasures? I know, I know … I am thoroughly ashamed of myself, but there seems little I can do about this. And the next time I find myself browsing through a popular book that strikes me as badly written, there I go again, saying what I think. Shocking, absolutely shocking.

And then I go around saying how much I enjoy books that only Book Snobs ever read. If I read Ulysses, say, or The Brothers Karamazov, or the odes of Keats – yes, I know, that last one isn’t even proper prose! – and, what’s more, if I say I enjoy it, then, obviously, I am lying. It’s only because I’m a Book Snob that I can’t admit I’d rather be reading The Da Vinci Code instead.

So why don’t I read bestsellers? Why is my reading almost entirely devoted to classics, or books that are highly regarded by literary types – i.e. rated only by other Book Snobs? I offer the excuse – a weak one, I know – that I am actually quite a slow reader, and, not having the time or the energy to read everything that is out there, I am forced to be selective. And so, I focus on works that are well-regarded: while that doesn’t ensure that what I read will necessarily be of a high quality, it does improve the odds somewhat.

And what’s more, most books on the bestseller lists that I browse in the bookshops seem to me shoddily written.

Damn! – there I go again!

Then, I don’t take everyone’s opinion equally seriously. This is very damning. For, as we all know, in our democratic age, all opinions carry equal weight – especially when it comes to books: we are all entitled to our opinions, and anyone who says otherwise is a Snob. Sadly, I am snobbish enough to look for evidence of understanding, of insight; I look for lucidly stated argument; and I take more seriously the opinions of those who can provide such things: for when they do provide such things, what they have to say becomes more than an opinion – it becomes a critical judgement. And thinking in this manner makes me, I fear, an unredeemable Book Snob.

Or take these e-readers. I actually do have an iPad, which can act as an e-reader. And the first thing I did on getting the iPad was to download what for me are the three most indispensable books in the English language – the King James Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Complete Sherlock Holmes stories. This is handy when I’m away from home: it saves me lugging large volumes around. But I am of a generation that is too used to paper books, and, for that reason, I do find reading from a tablet a less rewarding experience than reading print on paper. Sometimes, in making this point, I get a bit carried away and overstate it somewhat: “E-reading isn’t real reading!” I say, reflecting merely my own experience: for it doesn’t seem like real reading to me! But as soon as I say something so heinous, I am instantly a Book Snob, a person fit only to be shunned. Once again, I acknowledge my guilt, but what can I do? I weep about it on long, winter nights.

And I am, I admit, very attached to my paper books. I love handling them. I love the smell of them. Silly, I know, but there you are. Some people love their shoes, some their jewellery, some their cars, and some even their snooker cues: I love books. I wish I could help it, but I can’t. I get upset when I drop something on the page and stain it; or when a paperback spine becomes badly creased, and pages start to fall out. How very Book Snobbish of me!

I also buy books from independent booksellers, as buying heavily discounted books from chains and from internet outlets seems to me to be bad for the book industry. And since I love books, and would like the publishing industry to thrive; and since, further, I am fortunate enough not to be on the breadline; I like to support independent outlets as best I can, even though it costs me a bit more.

Oh dear! – there really is no help for me, is there?

Well, what cannot be helped must be accepted: I am a Book Snob, and there isn’t anything I can do about it. But please don’t look down on us: looking down on people is, after all, our job!

So here’s my suggestion: all of you out there who aren’t Book Snobs, why don’t you make friends with one? Let’s have an International Adopt a Book Snob Week. And you may well find, I think, that we Book Snobs are, underneath it all, actually quite cute and cuddly people.

Even though we think 50 Shades of Grey is a steaming pile of crap!

69 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alan on August 13, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    It’s not just books where a love of quality is denigrated as snobbery; the same thing attaches to those of us who like our films to be arty with the proverbial A. Normally the charge levelled at cineastes (is there a literary equivalent of that term?) is that they only profess to enjoy watching such fare in order to sound intelligent and impress others, and that really they are wasting hours watching stuff that could be better spent on “The King’s Speech”.

    In which case a fondness for something like Joyce’s Ulysses must be even more heinous; think of the many hours frittered away pretending to enjoy something like that – truly pathetic isn’t it.

    On the subject of which, I’ve started to listen to Frank Delaney’s marathon explicatory podcast on Ulysses, which you can subscribe to via iTunes and such places. Excellent so far – http://blog.frankdelaney.com/re-joyce/.

    Reply

    • Yes, it’s not just in literature. Love of quality in any field is denigrated as “snobbery” and “elitism”. And we are so busy bandying these terms around that we don’t have the time or the energy left to debate seriously what constitutes quality. You may think X is quality and Y isn’t, and I maythnk precisely the opposite: we should debate it intelligently, presenting our arguments, examing them, revising or modifying our views, etc. But we won’t get the opportunity to do so if we find ourselves constantly having to rebut “People who like stuff like X and Y but not Z are snobs”.

      “People only read books like Ulysses to impress” is a common refrain around the net. Why anyone would go to such immense trouble as to read Ulysses merely to impress – especially in a world in which erudition isn’t valued, and rarely impresses – I really cannot imagine.

      Thankls for the link, by the way: I’ll look it up. I revcently downloaded on my iPad the entire audio version Ulysses read by Jim Norton (aka Father Brennan who got kicked up the arse in Father Ted). It’ ssuperbly done, and apleasure to hear. Joyce really had a fine ear for the rhythms of prose, and much that seems obscure on the page is clarifid when you hear it.

      Sorry – I wasn’t being too much of a Snob there, was I?

      Anyway, thanks for the link – I’ll look it up tonight.

      Reply

  2. She contradicts herself. She spends several ‘translations’ proving that book snobs can’t think for themselves. Then berates them for not joining the Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games fads. I thought the ability to resist the push of the crowd, to remain true to one’s own tastes and not follow what’s fashionable would be considered a sign of security and free thinking. But not to the author of this silly diatribe.

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    • Well -that’s the common fate of rebels, isn’t it? They’re so busy rebelling against what the perceive to be authority, that they all end up looking and acting and saying the same as each other.

      “Those Book Snobs, those mustachio-twirling pantomime villains, tell us we mustn’t read Twilight?” (Actually no, they don’t: they just say it’s not very good.) “OK – let’s all read and enjoy Twilight! That’ll show them what rebels we all are, and how we can all think for ourselves!”

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  3. Oh Damn !! there I go again agreeing with you Himadri

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  4. Thank you for this post which made me smile/laugh and the idea of “adopt a book snob” is gorgeous. Another embarrassing characteristic of book snobs could be their tendency to show off. They display their books in piles and shelves all over the place. And only books nobody cares about.

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  5. I can’t condescend that far, that would require critical limbo dancing. Is ‘riot’ in the title ‘like cool’?

    May I make a plea for ereaders. I have the Sony version which allows underlining and notation which I would not do on the paper version. I keep notebooks for that and generally after having entered my sublime apercus I never look at them again. At least a book is unspoiled. On Gutenberg Project there are very many classic books to download which would be hard to find in the second-hand barrows that I frequent.

    Read your Fowler in times of trouble, may his acerbic spirit watch over you.

    Reply

    • Hello, I tend not to write in books myself – mainly because it’s not so easy to write in books when you’re reading on the commuter train. I did make an exception for The Shadow of the Wind (which I had to read as I was in a book group), but I’m afraid my margin notes were rather obscene. I do hope that whoever picked up my copyfrom the second-hand shelf wasn’t too shocked!

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  6. Silly, Miguel, no not silly. Irreverent. Ms Dead White Guys started her book blog because classics bloggers were snooty old grumps and most importantly not funny. We do not put hilarious decade-old Jay-Z references in our header. So she supplies the irreverence the rest of us lack.

    She is a book humorist, and that column is an example of her humor. “Bookterwebternet”!

    Bookriot is a strange place.

    Himadri, you are way more of a Verdi snob than a book snob.

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  7. Posted by Malcolm on August 13, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Himadri, no matter how light a person enjoys their reading, I haven’t found anyone who didn’t think 50 Shades of Grey was crap. And actually if you put anything + snob into a google search you would find such things. Put “book appreciation” or “great books” in and you find quite different attitudes towards good books. I put in farming snobs and it came up with organic snobs, coffee snobs, plough snobs, seafood snobs, tomato snobs (and that was just going to the first two pages). I had to check what “snobbery with violence” meant but it was a rural person objecting to people shooting birds (and paying thousands for the privilege).

    Cheers, Caro. (I think this will say it is from Caro, but I am not good at checking which google account I am using, as you know.)

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, you’re right: having a go at the likes of Dan Brown and EL James is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. However, they do have their defenders, and people criticising them are often labelled as snobs. Here is an example from the Books ages of the Guardian, no less: there’s more such stuff if you can be bothered to hunt around for it.

      And yes, of course, there are any who write intelligently about works of literary worth. I certainly don’t dispute that.

      I agree also that there are many other types of snobbery also: I focussed on the Book variety because… Well, because I am one! I am particularly intrigued by the “tomato snob” though: I can’t help thinking that would be a nice one to take up!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  8. Well, call it “snobbery” if you will. I call it being a higher life form. OK, that’s elitist. I don’t think I’m a higher life form. That would give others who read tripe an out. You can’t read beyond your level, right?

    No. It’s a matter of choice. We “snobs” have cultivated a taste in the superior. We no longer find literary pop tarts fulfilling. We enjoy thinking on a higher plane and increasing our critical thinking skills.

    Again, I don’t think I’m superior but I believe I’ve chosen to exercise my mind. I’ve heard the excuse, “I just want to read for enjoyment” or “After a hard day’s work I just want to relax”. How does one relax reading tripe? I mean how does allowing one’s grey cells to atrophy renew and invigorate a person?

    There’s another thing you didn’t bring up. When I first started blogging I thought all book blogs were equal. As I finally was able to sift through all the dark fantasy, paranormal and vampire blogs, I found very few blogs that were about reading good literature.

    When I finally found blogs about classical literature I discovered most of them were written by young, arrogant college girls who thought they were being intellectual by parroting the politically correct, postmodernist re interpretation of classical works given to them by their professors (all the while mocking their professors on their blogs for not being as smart as they are.)

    Well, I being really negative so I better stop. Still, I’m glad you brought the subject up so I had an excuse to vent a little.

    PS I have those indispensable books, too, AND I have a Kindle. I have to say it is more convenient to travel with the Kindle then books. With a thin piece of plastic I have a few hundred books at my fingertips, which would not be possible with the hardback. Just have to remember the charger. :)

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon, you ask:

      How does one relax reading tripe?

      Indeed! That’s a question i’ve frequently asked myself. If you can’t tell it’s tripe, then fair enough – after all, no-one is obliged to develop a literary taste. But when you know something is tripe, how can you bear to read it? But people do, and it’s something I’ve never really understood.

      There are, indeed, times when I too want to relax, and my brain is too tired to take in anything very challenging. There are many fine writers who cater for such occasions. But even in such states, I cannot read tripe. I suppose that’s what makes me a Book Snob! :)

      I am, however, glad I decided to venture into the Book-Blog-World. Along with all the blogs you mention, there actually are some very good, intelligently written blogs out there as well!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. Hear, Hear Himadri!

    I second your point about there not being enough time to read that which does not immensely appeal to one.

    i also find that a lot of popular literature, especially some of which I liked when I was younger, simply seems kind of boring now. Kind of like toys for very young children, it was once fascinating, now that I know real complexity, it really seems very bland.

    Reply

    • It’s the same with everything, isn’t it? Once you become acquainted with the best, the less good no longer seems so impressive. It’s just such a shame that this abilityto distinguish between teh”good” and the “less good” is deemed to be snobbery in so many quarters!

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  10. I only read literature to look cool and interesting, even though I also only read literature alone in my flat.

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    • I read mainly on the commutertrain. Well, I don’t really read – i only pretend to: i am actually looking round at the faces of the other passengers trying to spot which of them has noticed that I’m reading Dostoyevsky.

      Doesn’t half slow down the reading, mind you!

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  11. Posted by alan on August 14, 2013 at 4:14 am

    On that “dead white guys” blog she links to (not that many dead white guys) she appears to write in a book list for summer reading:
    “2. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Soooo I’ve sort of been saving the last few Dickens books that I haven’t read because WHEN I FINISH THEM I WILL HAVE READ THEM ALL AND THEN I WILL CRY. I also haven’t watched the last episode of Star Trek: Next Generation for the same reason. But that’s wussy and I need to get over it.”
    I wonder if this is a conscious parody of the kind of thing you get in the Guardian these days, a kind of : “all narratives are equally valid, so I can’t elevate one thing over another, but that also means I don’t have to apologise for reading anything from ‘the canon’. Still, nevertheless, somehow I always seem to be implicitly apologising for it by talking this crap…”
    Seriously Himadri, I think you two would get on famously.

    Reply

    • As I say, Alan, we Book Snobs are cute and cuddly people underneath it all: I’m quite easy to get on with as you know! All we Book Snobs looking for is a bit of love and understanding!

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  12. My wife, by her own admission, had to summon up the courage to tell me that she was thinking of getting an e reading device for our forthcoming jaunt to the US, that’s how much of a printed page BS (appropriate abbreviation) I am. Of course everyone is entitled to do what they want but the her fear of disappointing me with this news worried me. Not much though. Maybe not enough.

    I’d also like to offer up a related condition – the book diet. This is where you promise only to read the classics and swear you’ll never bother with ‘trash’ fiction again (this is usually after giving up halfway through something that you thought would be ‘light reading for the train commute’ or something like that but is actually just bilge, and then feeling terribly guilty that for the time you’d taken reading (and abandoning) it when you could have read something more edifying instead). The book diet addresses the trash pounds you gain when successive rubbish reads accumulate (holidays and Christmas are particularly tricky times) and give you a literary spare tyre which you promptly address with a new year resolution only to read Dickens or Eliot, and aspire to emulate those Grauniad writers who when asked about their holiday reads rhapsodise about taking the (printed) Gibbon or Anthony Powell to their appointed island retreat because they haven’t read them for a few years.

    Reply

    • Hello David, I have no quarrel with e-readers. It’s just something that I am not used to; and further, I have this irrational attachent to paper books! It’s much the same with many of our generation, I guess.

      I don’t know that it’s a good idea to read anything out of a sense of duty. there’s no reason to doubt that those who pack Gibbon or Powell for holiday reading do so because they really want to read Gibbon or Powell: the common assumption that they’re doing so merely to show off seems to me both unwarranted, and, indeed, rather insulting. When I was in France for a week recently, I packed Anthony Kenny’s History of Western Philosophy. I wasn’t showing off. (Whom should I show off to? Whom would I have been hoping to impress?) I packed this book because I genuinely wanted to read it.

      And it’s the same with classics. If you don’t really want to read Dickens or Tolstoy or Joyce, that’s fine; but if you do want to read it, that’s fine also. But there seems to me littl epoint in forcing oneself to read something one doesn’t really want to.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  13. Posted by Melanie Hancox on August 14, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Hi, isn’t the point, rather than ‘book snob,’ that you enjoy literature that has more than just a good yarn at its core? You, we, enjoy reading books, poems, plays, that force us to think more deeply, tell us something interesting about the world etc etc. Other people enjoy reading books that are just a fun story, and that doesn’t mean that we should look down on them, or them on us. Although your article is great fun and I’d be happy to wear your label with pride.

    Reply

    • Hello Melanie, and welcome.

      To be serious, i don’t like to think of myself as a snob either, but in discussion on books in the internet, that is a term that, in my experience at least, is thrown about quite liberally. It’s a shame, as it leads to people going on the defensive (desperate to demonstrate they aren’tsnobs), and the last thing that gets talked about are the books themselves.

      Anyone can read and enjoy whatever they want: that has never been at issue. But I do find it saddening that people can be labelled as “snobs” or “elitist” because they prefer to read books that are challenging; or because “entertainment” is not necessarily what they look for in their reading. The worst is to criticise the quality of writing in something that is popular: that really is like pulling a ton of bricks on oneself!

      So nowadays, I don’t really mind too much if anyone wants to call me a snob. If that’s the worst they can say about me, and if it makes them feel better to call me names, I guess that’s fair enough. Given my likes and dislikes, some people are going to call me “snob” no matter what – so why worry about it? Let’s just embrace our inner snob! :)

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  14. Posted by Carolyn on August 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    I am reading at the moment Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Story (I’ve read two of these true stories of widowhood close together and they are bothersome – will I be quite so distraught if my husband dies before me? or perhaps a worse thought, won’t I be?). Already I have got side-tracked here, but she has a paragraph talking of her husband’s favourite poem, Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter, and then says, “Now John Crowe Ransom has been dropped from the American pretry canon. No one younger than sixty, probably, has even heard of this poem. Greatly admired in his time, and a figure of considerable influence, Ransom is a casualty literary culture wars of the late twentieth century – a Causasian male poet like Delmore Schwartz, Howard Nemerow, James Dickey, James Wrights. All of them, casualties of time.”

    I was reminded of that dreadful link that started this discussion, and it wasn’t the accusations of snobbery that were the problem, it was the ones of racism. But it seems to be a huge preoccupation of American society now.

    Reply

    • The intrusion of identity politics – especially race politics – into literary matters has been most unfortunate, to say the least. I find myself squirming when I hear terms such as “Dead White Males” to denigrate that which should be valued by people of all races. It is not so great a preoccupation in UK as it appears to be in US, but with Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman on the case, that’s only a matter of time.

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  15. Posted by Carolyn on August 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    I didn’t write much then (I feel) but the computer started its usual wobbling when you have gone over their word limit.

    I was going to say also that I understand exactly people reading drivel to relax. When I am tired I can’t envisage reading my Adam Bede that I started a while ago, I can’t even get on well with an ordinary non-fiction thing. In fact any book tends to go by the wayside when I am lolling of the sofa in front of the television and I just do a Sudoku puzzle or read a magazine or the newspaper. The television, too, that I prefer is on the side of drivel – lovely Midsomer Murders or Lewis or New Tricks. Or sport that you only have to look at when the commentators take a long breath and it’s time to check if they are going to catch that cricket ball. Mostly I want to do close to nothing in the evenings, and reading anything more than the lightest stuff is too much like hard work. It is hard work reading very good old literature with language structures and ideas that are foreign to a modern mind.

    Reply

    • Oh, there is plenty of well-crafted light entertainment that’s a pleasure to read. But “drivel” is different. When people tell me they enjoy relaxing to “drivel”, I don’t doubt them, but I’m puzzled all the same: I really don’t understand it. When I want to relax and give my brain a rest, there’s no shortage of well-crafted entertainment to choose from.

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      • Absolutely! For instance, Dorothy Sayers’ Detective stories -in my opinion- are just fun light reads but not drivel. Even Sherlock Holmes is fun and relaxing and not heavy. I don’t know, bad writing doesn’t relax me, it depresses me.

        At the risk of sounding judgmental, I think it’s an excuse.

        I don’t believe mediocrity helps anyone relax, I think it makes our minds flaccid.

      • I’d go along with that. I too find bad writing depressing.

        I haven’t tried Dorothy L Sayers: I must give her novels a go some day.

  16. I wrote a comment a few days back – computer said no…

    …which is just as well as it was *very* bitchy ;)

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  17. Yeah, I just left a long comment over on Book Riot about how I get sick of people who call me a ‘snob’ because I don’t pander to their egos and reassure them that, yes, 50 Shades is wonderful. I’m bitter because for years I bought into the whole “don’t be a snob, give it a try and read it” routine, which lead me to read all sorts of boring, badly written dreck. If refusing to read past the third, gratuitous brag in Lean In makes me a snob, fine. If my unwillingness to stomach teenage vampires or billionaires spanky men or humanities professors who are flown around the world in private jets by the Vatican makes me snob, then fine, I’m a snob, too. I don’t care. I’m old. I don’t have time for crap books anymore.

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    • Excellent – man braucht nicht “dreck” fur sein lesen – hope I have spelled that correctly Lisa – to heck with people with an ego problem – too many of them carry a book that is one I always describe as “a book ti be SEEN to be reading” this sort of thing is very tiresome but it is their way – it is I find – very parvenu of them childish too – oh my Gods – shut up Patricia those people are not worth Lisa’s notice nor yours – I remain an independent SNOB

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    • Hello Lisa, I do find it sad that so much of popular literature is so poor. It shouldn’t be like this. At its best, popular literature can rise to very great heights indeed – to such an extent that any dividing line that may exist between craftsmanship and artistry becomes irrelevant. But there seems to be a belief that is prevalent that if something is popular, then we needn’t worry about artistry. Now, it is this that I find snobbish: popular literature should be as subject to literary standards as is any other kind of literature.

      It is sad also that there exists, as you say, pressure to read certain kinds of books. It has always seemed to me axiomatic that one is free to read and to enjoy whatever one wants. Disliking stuff such as Twilight or 50 Shades or the Da Vinci Code most certainly does not make you a snob: it makes you discerning.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • “At its best, popular literature can rise to very great heights indeed – to such an extent that any dividing line that may exist between craftsmanship and artistry becomes irrelevant.”
        One of your three “indispensable” books (Sherlock Holmes) is proof of that. In its day, it was certainly classed as “popular fiction”. And the same may be said of the works of Dickens. Isn’t it well-known that, when “The Old Curiosity Shop” was originally published (as a newspaper serial), crowds waited on the quayside in New York for the British newspapers, in order to find out what had happened to Little Nell?
        And the same is true of music. Verdi was an extremely popular composer, his music was whistled in the streets by ordinary people. The same can’t be said of Harrison Birtwhistle, that’s for sure.
        One oddity I must mention. I have yet to meet anyone who has read the “50 Shades” books and will admit to liking them or that they are anything other than trash. So – WHO is buying and reading them? Could it be that ALL my friends are “book snobs”?

      • Oh, absolutely! Popular culture – literature, music, film, etc. – has given us much of lasting value. This is why popular culture should be taken seriously, and judged by stringent standards of excellence. It is those who seem to think that the popular is exempt from criticism – for the very reason that it is popular – who seem to me to be the real snobs! And I must say I find myself very depressed by what I can only see as the dramatic decline in the standards of popular culture.

        But of course, art can also reach great peaks without being popular. While popularity is certainly not to be looked down on (as you say, Dickens, Verdi, etc. were all popular arists), we must also allow art not to be popular. In short, popularity, or the lack thereof, shoudl not influence outr judgement either way.

        One oddity I must mention. I have yet to meet anyone who has read the “50 Shades” books and will admit to liking them or that they are anything other than trash. So – WHO is buying and reading them? Could it be that ALL my friends are “book snobs”?

        Yes, I have wondered this as well. It could be, of course, that we mix in circles where we are unlikely to meet people who would like “50 Shades”. But I have met people who say, essentially, “Yes, I know it’s rubbish, but I like it anyway”. Which is fair enough, I guess. But even if people who like this sort of thing don’t think it’s very good, then surely I – who don’t claim to like this sort of thing – can be excused for not thinking it very good either!

        I don’t know … I’m all confusd now!

        All the best,
        Himadri

  18. I shun e-anything (except my blog). I’m with you on paper books. Trailing Madame Bibliophile’s heartwarming take on the good that blogoshere offers, I’d love to share this post I think will be right up your alley:

    http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/the-writing-process-ii-why-we-read-part-4/

    No obligation to respond. It is for the organic exchange of ideas we can enjoy here that I share. Blessings.

    Reply

    • Hello, I do apologise for replying so late; but firstly, I’d been on holiday; and secondly, it has been – for reasons too tedious to go into – a particularly busy time since returning, and your post, to which you link (thank you for that), requires more than a mere cursory reply.

      “Why we read?” is of course a very difficult question to answer – partly because there are many different possible reasons. Writing can indeed, as you say, tap into our autobiographies, so that we may recognise things about ourselves; but it may also, quite legitimately I think, introduce us to new and to different perspectives; and once we have incorporated these new perspectives into our own, our own experience of the world become broadened and enriched. It is indeed a fascinating question, and, perhaps, there isn’t a single answer that encompasses all aspects of this theme.

      I do agree with you when you say: “But reading isn’t just anesthesia or a verbal trip to the theme park. We’re not only running from something, in many cases, but running to.”

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • “I think, introduce us to new and to different perspectives; and once we have incorporated these new perspectives into our own,” Right, I said this, too. Thanks for the read and the feedback.

  19. Thanks toall who have posted here lately. I am currently on holiday, and while I am looking in from time to time, I am not spending too much time online. But I promise to respond to all the comments when I return some time next week. In the meantime, thank you once again for dropping in, and for joining in the discussion.

    All the best for now,
    Himadri

    Reply

  20. H,

    I adopted you as a friend many years ago. I’ve done my part to preserve the book snob species from extinction. ;)

    I’m currently reading a blatantly escapist, post-apocalyptic thriller called Year Zero by Jeff Long. I’m almost finished with it, so I really must run now…

    Later…

    ~Eric

    Reply

    • Hello Eric, I am most grateful for your befriending me as part of your mission to save the Book Snob from extinction! But then again – we beardies have to stick together!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  21. Excellent post, as ever. I’m a proud book snob too, and the only occasional foray into recent bestsellers I make tends to be into genre fiction rather than ‘what everyone else is reading because it won X’ or ‘was featured on X’ or ‘was made into a film directed by X’. I agree – too many classics out there, which I want to read first (and, as a lecturer in English, feel I ought to even if I didn’t want to!). I think people who read the classics all the time are viewed like people who like classical music: they must be doing it to look impressive, to seem highbrow and intellectual, whereas really I like classic literature and classical music for the same reason. If it’s been around for several centuries and is still being talked about, it’s already proved it has more staying power and continued relevance than Harry Potter (for all of Rowling’s success!).

    I also agree about e-readers. I don’t own one, and most people my age (30) seem to be succumbing and buying a Kindle, which worries me a little, as I look to my generation and the next to safeguard the paper book, which as a feat of technology hasn’t been surpassed (I think it was Christopher Ricks who made the point that Kindles actually have an acknowledgment that this new technology is retrograde rather than progressive, imprinted within their instruction to ‘scroll’). All this nonsense about it being easier to read in bed with a Kindle (what eyes will you have left if you spend all day reading off a screen?!) I remain unconvinced by (as you can probably tell).

    I agree about adding Sherlock Holmes to the duo of the KJV and Shakespeare. Desert Island Discs should do so and add the Conan Doyle canon to those two works…

    Reply

    • Hello Oliver,

      I think people who read the classics all the time are viewed like people who like classical music: they must be doing it to look impressive, to seem highbrow and intellectual, whereas really I like classic literature and classical music for the same reason.

      There’s something a bit strange about this popular conception, isn’t there? Do people really exist who read difficult books or listen to difficult music merely to impress? If so, why? We don’t, after all, live in a society in which erudition is valued. So why go to such immense trouble to fake an erudition that most people don’t value anyway?

      There are certain genres I like – ghost stories, say, or adventure stories. But I am such an unredeemable snob, I want to read the best ghost story writers, and the best adventure story writers. (And that reminds me: it’s been a long time since I read one of those marvellous Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser…) And of course, when it comes to detective stories, you can’t beat Sherlock Holmes! (Although my wife is more a Philip Marlowe fan.) When BBC finally comes to its senses and invites me to Desert Island Discs, I certainly know which book I’ll be asking for apart from the Bible and Shakespeare!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  22. Posted by Jim on August 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree more that only books that can stand the test of time or informed criticism are worth reading, given what Horace terms ‘vitae summa brevis’. And I much prefer real books where I can get them and read them without too much of a struggle. But, as ombhurbhuva has pointed out, eBook readers give access, and immediate, hassle-free access at that, to out-of-copyright masterpieces by the thousand. Better to read some of these on a Kindle than not at all! Plus, the dictionary lookup function on such devices means one can tackle many foreign masterpieces in the languages in which they were written without having to reach for a dictionary every few minutes (assuming one has first put in a bit of work on the grammar). I owe my direct knowledge of Goethe and Dante and much of my willingness to read books in a variety of European languages to my Kindle. In fact, it’s turned me into a thoroughgoing Book Snob…

    Reply

    • Hello Jim,
      I certainly don’t mean to present myself as anti-e-reading: as a blogger, that would certainly be more than a little hypocritical of me! I do appreciate the benefits of teh e-reader. But you do get set in certain ways, I’m afraid, and at my age, I think I’m too old to change over from paper books. I do read e-books when I am away from home, but it doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as reading from a paper book. Irraional, I know, but there it is.

      I’d love to be able to read Goethe and Dante in the original. Appreciating and enjoying these writers certainly does not make you a snob: it makes you discerning!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Jim on August 30, 2013 at 9:29 am

        Himadri,

        If you want the ultimate reading experience, bear in mind Maynard Keynes’s sage advice: “If a book is worth buying at all, it’s worth buying in red Morocco.”

        I wryly think of this every time I enter an Oxfam bookshop.

        Keep up the good work.

        Jim

  23. Posted by Hadrian Wise on August 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    As I understand it, a “snob” in ordinary parlance is somebody aspiring to a higher social condition than he is comfortable with, who assuages his sense of discomfort by condemning or ridiculing others for failing to observe the petty conventions of that social condition. This compensates for his difficulty in feeling natural in the attitudes that come naturally to that condition. A BOOK snob would then be somebody who ridiculed readers of 50 Shades of Grey without being able himself to “get” Ulysses, even though he wants to be somebody who gets Ulysses – his tragedy being that he’ll never “get” Ulysses unless he actually wants to get Ulysses rather than just wanting to be somebody who does. I am sure such people exist. But it is fallacious to conclude that everybody who ridicules 50 Shades is one of them, & I don’t think for one moment that you are, Himadri.
    I too find the “reading drivel to relax” thing incomprehensible. Most of us are not spending our days in the office exhausting ourselves with dazzling intellectual pyrotechnics. On the contrary, I find literature a relief from the tedium of my job. Of course I do sometimes want to relax without having to do any thinking. There’s something called “sleep” that does rather nicely for that.

    Reply

    • I can’t disagree with your definition of literary snobbery, but, given that definition, I don’t think I know any literary snob – either in the real or in the virtual world. The people I know who claim to like Ulysses (or King Lear or the poetry of Donne or whatever) aren’t aspiring to a condition they are uncomfortable with: they really do love these works. No doubt the kind of person you describe exists, but I would question that they exist in sufficiently large numbers to justify current hysteria of hunting out and castigating literary snobs, real or otherwise. In practice – in my experience, at least – the pejorative term“snob” is applied to anyone who cares for literary quality, takes the trouble to develop some understanding of it, and distinguishes on this basis.

      Of course, we may disagree on what precisely constitutes literary quality: it’s not an exact science by any means, but neither is it a free-for-all (i.e. it’s good if you think it’s good, bad if you think it’s bad). Disagreement on what constitutes literary quality leads to discussion and to debate, which are to be welcomed. But if we are to jettison the concept of literary quality completely – as many nowadays appear to do – what are we left with to discuss or to debate? Nothing much, as far as I can see. We open the doors then to assessing literature on values that have nothing to do with literature. This is why literature is increasingly seen as but a means of asserting our identities. (The use of literature as an adjunct of identity politics is already, I believe, a major phenomenon across the Atlantic, and with people like Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman vigorously promoting it over here, it is making great strides in Britain also. It is deeply depressing.)

      If you search across the internet for views and opinions on why the teaching of literature is important (or otherwise), all sorts of arguments pro and contra are advanced; but the one argument you aren’t very likely to see from any camp is the most obvious one – viz. that one of the principal purposes of education is to propagate our culture, and that literature is an important aspect of our culture. It’s almost as if people are embarrassed to make this argument, because no-one appears to believe our culture is worth propagating.

      Under current circumstances, even if we were to define literary snobbery as you have done, is it really among the major cultural issues to be concerned with? Far more serious, I’d have thought, is the increasing sidelining of literary culture from the mainstream, and of assessing literature by criteria other than that of literary quality.

      Sorry – I went off an a rant there … But you expect no less of me, I’m sure!

      Reply

  24. I guess that I am one of those recalcitrant types who firmly believes that Inferno, King Lear and Tractatus are popular works to be enjoyed and shared by all and those poor Da Vinci Coders are being cheated and deprived by a crass commercial culture of true enjoyment and self-fulfillment.

    Reply

    • These are certainly works that should be available to everyone, but whether everyone is capable of taking them in is another matter. I like to think of myself as not too thick, but something such as “Tractatus”, I fear, is likely to go well over my head! There is, I think, an elitism here, but elitism is not necessarily a bad thing: only a small elite understand relativity, say, or quantum mechanics, but it doesn’t follow that understanding of these subjects is somehow undesirable.

      I fear that difficult works will always be for an elite. It can hardly be otherwise: even if we had the ability, we do not have the time or the energy to apply ourselves as required in all areas of intellectual pursuit. But it is important to ensure that, in the area of literature in particular and of the arts and sciences in general, these elites are not determined by criteria of wealth or of social status. In other words, that Inferno, King lear, Tractatus et al should be at least available to everyone.

      But in our current environment, there appears to be a great suspicion of such works (on the vague grounds that “they’re not for the likes of us”), and an even greater suspicion of those who love such works. “High culture”, as it is known, is increasingly marginalised away from the mainstream. So much of our cultural values we obtain through a sort of osmosis – of absorbing what is around us; and naturally, we cannot absorb what isn’t around us. It is all most unfortunate, to say the least.

      Reply

  25. Posted by ombhurbhuva on August 24, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Jim:
    For instance the very many excellent novels of Sir Hugh Walpole whose novels sold by the cartload and is now practically forgotten (d.1941). Very well written with a fine sense of the macabre. Gutenberg Australia has The Killer and the Slain and Portrait of a Man with Red Hair. Also on Gutenberg Project The Captives about life in a Methodist Sect in 1907. Due a revival in my opinion though availability for free may block the log rolling that publishers do in the broadsheets.

    Reply

  26. […] across the brilliant post on book snobbery and later reading Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (more […]

    Reply

  27. Fun post.

    I tend to think one shouldn’t apologise for one’s tastes. On the one hand that means I don’t think those who read say Fifty Shades should apologise for doing so. If they enjoy it, well, it’s their leisure time.

    Equally, I don’t apologise for reading Jean Rhys or Krasznahorkai. Why would I? It’s my leisure time after all.

    The anti-snobbery people, whether in literature, film, music or whatever often seem very defensive. It’s not that I look down on them, it’s that they fear I do because they don’t feel confident defending their own tastes. Why though? I also read pulp crime and some sf, I don’t have a problem defending that. I don’t feel bad that I like golden age sf movies many of which it’s fair to say are not going to be getting reprints by Criterion or Masters of Cinema anytime soon.

    I think incidentally that there are people who have Joyce on their shelves in the hope of suggesting they’re the sort of people who read Joyce. You can generally tell though because they’ll have a handfull of well known “difficult” works but no evidence of further reading.

    Re ereaders, I have an ipad and a kindle. They’re fundamentally different reading experiences. Ipads are backlit – you’re reading from a computer screen and the lighting causes eye fatigue after a while. Kindles are electronic paper, very different technology and reading them is pretty much the same (in terms of impact on the eyes, not feel or smell obviously) as paper. Not looking to convert you there, but I wouldn’t extrapolate from one to the other.

    I do read on kindle by preference. Even Joyce. I’m reading Proust at the moment in hardcopy though – the kindle version apparently has formatting errors (as do the print Hemingways I have, so there’s nothing unique to the ereader in that).

    Besides, what would be the point of being on volume three of Proust if people couldn’t see I’m on volume three? They might not realise I’m the sort of person who didn’t give up part way through volume one …

    Reply

    • Hello Max, and welcome.

      I agree fully that, leaving aside certain unsavoury extremes, no-one need apologise for their taste. I am myself a great fan of Hammer horror films - so I am in no position to look down on anyone for what they like. Which is not to say, of course, that the popular is exempt from criticism: but there is, it seems to me, a fine but important line between criticising the work, and criticising people for liking the work. It is a line I try to ensure I don’t cross. But in certain parts of the net, criticism the work alone is enough to bring down on one’s head all sorts of accusations.

      My wife has a Kindle and has become quite a convert to it. And I can certainly understand its benefits – and yes, I agree, reading from a Kindle easily beats reading from an i-Pad, for the reasons you give. Of course, as you say, no-one can see what you’re reading, but that can sometimes be a benefit. I do most of mny reading on commuter trains and buses, and I remember when I was reading Nabokov’s Lolita, we were going through a particularly rainy period, and I would wear a rather shabby Colombo-style raincoat; and, not surprisingly, the sight of a middle-aged man in a seedy raincoat reading Lolita did attract a few uncertain looks…

      Reply

      • There’s a lot of bloody good Hammer horror movies, and I don’t mean good in some post-modern ironic sense, just straightforwardly good. I’ll save that post to read later.

        It is odd how some people interpret a criticism of a work as somehow a criticism of them. Say you don’t like The Walking Dead (which in fact I do) and some of the hardcore fans will take it as you somehow saying you don’t like them. I don’t understand that. If the work’s good it can defend itself.

        It reminds me sometimes of blasphemy. I’m not religious, but if I did believe that a single entity had created the cosmos, the stars and planets, rocks, trees, insects, lions, humans and mackerel and all the myriad things that populate our universe I don’t think I’d feel the need to take offence on their behalf because someone said something disrespectful. I’d figure that after creating everything that was the divine could probably handle itself against someone being a bit rude about them on the internet.

        Probably a good call on the Lolita front. That said, had you put it in a brown paper cover it wouldn’t necessarily have improved things.

  28. Posted by Di on February 2, 2014 at 3:00 am

    Hi Himadri.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you.
    That post “Shit book snobs say: translations” has 2 points that (initially) got on my nerves- 1, classic literature lovers must be boring; 2, she gives me the impression that she cannot appreciate a literary work without identifying with the main characters, which is obviously silly and childish.
    But then again, what’s the point of being annoyed by such people. I’m a book snob, and no matter how many times I’ve told myself to respect other people’s tastes, the only thing I can do is not to ask people how they can enjoy such crap. I can’t help forming that question in my mind.
    Anyway, I’ve just discovered your blog recently and I love it very much, especially your articles on some of my favourite writers such as Tolstoy, Emily Bronte, Flaubert… Do you like Nabokov, Kafka, Marquez, Faulkner, Toni Morrison…? They’re also my favourites.

    Reply

    • Hello Di, and welcome.

      There are a great many very good literary blogs on the net – intelligent, erudite, and literate – but also many that are merely trivial and vapid. Perhaps it’s just best to shrug one’s shoulders, have a laugh, and move on.

      On the question of “snobbery”, there does seem to me to be a big difference between criticising the book and criticising the reader. The former cannot be avoided if one is to take literary criticism seriously: the latter seems to me unacceptable.

      Works of fiction are frequently judged on the basis of whether or not the reader can “identify” with the reader – although there is rately if ever any attempt to define what is meant by “identification”. My own view is that judging a book by this criterion has been disastrous for literary criticism. I addressed that issue in this post: there is quite a lively discussion below it.

      I am afraid I haven’t read as much of Nabokov as I should have: I don’t know why, because what I have read of him has been without exception first rate. Toni Morrison I’m afraid I haven’t read at all … Which would you recommend to begin with? Faulkner and Kafka I love – two essential writers for me – although, for some strange reason, I haven’t written much about either on ths blog. Gabriel Garcia Marquez I don’t quite get: “Hundred Years of Solitude” made little impression on me, I must admit; and “Love in the Time of Cholera”, after a superlative opening section, became what seemed to me little more than a rather tedious catalogue of Francisco’s sexual conquests. I must be missing something, because I loved the novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”: on the evidence of this work alone, it s clear that Marquez is a abhor talent.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Di on February 3, 2014 at 9:13 am

        Criticism of the reader has different meanings. In this case, if you’re referring to what I wrote, how people enjoy some crap is to me more about the crap than about the people enjoying it, though perhaps I may have expressed myself in a better way. I never think somebody stupid, or inferior, or whatever, only because they like a certain book, a certain writer, a certain genre.
        Toni Morrison, I particularly love “The bluest eye”, “Beloved” and “Sula”, but as you haven’t read her books, I recommend “The bluest eye” as a start.
        “100 years of solitude” I read right after some thick, heavy Russian novels. It’s marvellous in my opinion. But I guess you don’t like magical realism very much?
        Anyway, it would be nice to read your thoughts on the works by Kafka, Faulkner and Nabokov.

      • Hello Di, I was trying to lay out my own criteria of what I think constitutes snobbery, and what seems to me legitimate citicism. In the current climate, merely expressing criticism of certain books leaves one open to charges of “snobbery”: absurd, I know, but there it is. I certainly didn’t intend intend a personal dig, and sorry if it came over that way.

        I do, I admit, have a bit of trouble with “magic realism”. And with fantasy in general, I think – although, admittedly, I would find it hard to explain why, in that case, I respond to Kafka, say, or to “The master and Margarita”. I suppose “realism” and “fantasy” do not constitute a clear-cut dichotomy as such: the real can be presented in a stylised and distorted manner – as, say, Gogol and Dickens did; and the greater the stylisation, the closer one moves towards fantasy. (Gogol’s story about the disembodied nose is quite clearly fantasy; and, I’d argue, the death by spontaneous combustion in “Bleak House” is, quite deliberately, also in the realms of the fantastic.) But somewhere along this spectrum between realism and fantasy, a curtain seems to descend for me. It is not that I insist necessarily on strict realism; but as we move towards the fantastic, after a while, I can no longer discern an internal logic in the narrative, and something inside me seems to switch off. I have often wondered why this should be so, but have not yet come across a satisfactory explanation.

        I’ll give Toni Morrison a try: thank you for the recommendation. And yes, Much of Kafka and Faulkner are long overdue for re-reads. I am currently immersing myself in D. H. Lawrence, and am also planningto embark on Chaucer. As ever, there’s far too much to read…

        All the best for now,
        Himadri

      • Posted by Di on February 4, 2014 at 1:05 am

        Ah, internal logic. Right. I know what you mean. A few years ago I read a book called “Water for chocolate” for school and had to write 3 essays about it (oh horror!). It had no logic and I had trouble seeing that book as a magical realism (and still do) because the author seemed to be using “magic” to develop her plot and solve the problems in it, and hiding behind the genre, she could do anything, however illogical, without being accused of being illogical, unrealistic, because hey it’s magical realism.
        “100 years of solitude” is different though. And it’s different from the books I usually read. Almost like a mess, but it works. Then of course you may have your own opinion :D

      • Hello Di, It’s not so much perhaps a question of opinion – rather, it’s acknowledging my personal bias, and prejudices. I try usually not to write about books and writers I dislike, since generally one tends to be less percptive about what one dislikes rather than what one likes. And, for whatever reason, magical realism tends to leave me cold: the narrative seems to me subject merely to the author’s whim, and I’m afraid I lose the point very quickly. But that’s a comment on myself, not on the work.

  29. Posted by Di on February 5, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Ah, I see.

    Reply

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