Ryan's Reviews > Snobbery: The American Version

Snobbery by Joseph Epstein
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Aug 05, 09

Read in July, 2009

I picked this up hoping for I know not what - enlightenment, understanding, a broader perspective. In that sense, it delivered. The author actually goes to enviable lengths to portray his own snobbery, the origins of it and its own evolution, before he gets into tearing into the snobbery of others.

It was an enjoyable book, if you like social commentary, which is essentially all this is. There are relatively few concrete numbers, owing at least in part to the nature of snobbery itself being a somewhat subjective pursuit. There was a fairly consistent attempt on the part of the author to hammer on the main point of snobbery being snobbery as opposed to simply being a matter of personal taste - if I remember, that difference is primarily that snobbery is an affectation that one puts on in the hope that it will impress those above one's station, while simultaneously distancing oneself from those in the class below one's own. Taste is simply an acquisition of personality, brought about by more or less informed decision-making.

Yeah. Boring, but it is culpable, and so it provides a somewhat tenable basis for attacking and defining the various species of snob in the world today, which is where the book gets really rolling - well, relatively speaking. It's still pretty dry, even in the throes of mild disapproval and the accompanying sarcasm. There is an undeniable old white guy feel to the language, but it is descriptive and it is used precisely, as opposed to being obliterated with an overabundance of generality. Books focused on social phenomena seem very prone to suffering from vagueness. I can say that this book very rarely does, if ever.

At several points in the book I found I recognized the types of snob being described. If nothing else, it gave me a sense of not being completely devoid of reason for finding certain elements of society - such as those whom this author terms "virtucrats" - a bit too sure of their own immunity to snobbishness, when, in practice, it's a vital method of self-identification.

Which is, I suppose, one pointed summation of the book: When the author ceased to find any real satisfaction in courting favor from those whom he respected, it seemed he usually wound up finding it (although I admit that might be simply misinformation fed by my brain to itself in the hope of a satisfying resolution to the problem of being a famous author only when one doesn't give a shit about being a famous author, which frankly seems too pat to be true). In any case, even then, though, that approval carried (usually) not much weight for him.

It seems too bad to reduce this book to some kind of abstract memoir, since that was in no way what it was intended or constructed to be, but the personal story is the lynchpin of the book's existence. Without that experience as a grounding, fundamental inquiry, there wouldn't have been a book. Even with as hard to pin down a subject as this one really is, I believe Mr. Epstein made a cogent and consistently reliable evaluation of an inherently subjective social condition. If you like this kind of stuff, then you will like this stuff.

I was glad I read it, but also glad to move on to some fiction afterward. See if it floats your boat if you're curious, though, by all means.
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