The book snob

I am a book snob. I try not to be. But I come out that way anyway. Sometimes. It’s a habit of mind I learned, I hate to say, in graduate school.

Heady times, graduate school. Joyce, Woolf, Milton, Faulkner, the Pre-Raphaelites. Lit Crit. Looking down my nose at and trying to divorce myself from the writers of my youth and teens: Robert E. Howard, Alan Dean Foster, Tolkien, Larry Niven, Piers Anthony. Science fiction. Swords and sorcery and fantasy. Books and novels and stories I loved because they turned on my imagination.

In grad school I was disturbed by my peers embracing and devouring Stephen King — a horror writer, my god. Popular fiction. Surely he’s a hack. (To my defense: I genuinely don’t like to read horror fiction any more than I like watching horror movies; I really don’t like to be scared.)

And yet, after grad school I devoured John LeCarre’s Russia House and Rita Mae Brown’s Venus Envy, both popular novels, at least LeCarre was then a popular suspense-thriller writer. 

Another book snob scolded me for reading Brown. It was humor, she said. Not serious. As an aspiring writer I should be reading serious works, she said. (Venus Envy was laugh-out-loud funny. And I had read "serious" fiction. Was reading what my friend considered serious fiction.)

It took me several years after graduate school to remember why I loved to read in the first place. Grad school taught me to hunt for meaning, even meanings that might not really be there. I wasn’t reading for pleasure.

Which is what one of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby, has recently said is the primary reason to read.

He was interviewed in the London Times in September and the interviewer notes:

Hornby loves reading, that’s all there is to it. and he wants more people to do it and fewer people to be afraid of it, or think it’s something that’s "good for you". If you’re reading a book you don’t like, Hornby has some simple advice: stop reading. Pick another. It’s that easy. Read for pleasure, that’s all there is to it.

Hornby seems to suscribe, at least in his book diary Polysyllabic Spree, to The Believer magazine’s philosophy of book reviewing–no snarkiness. In the interview he says, "’It’s depressing to think that evaluating a book is the only thing you could do with it, as opposed to engaging with it, talking about it.’"

Engaging with the book. That’s the pleasure in reading. That’s what I love about books. The conversation, the entrance into another imagination. No matter what book it is, or who the author is.

So, from now on I’ll do my best not to be a book snob.


6 thoughts on “The book snob

  1. I can really relate to your experience of feeling you have to read books that are ‘good for you’. It has taken me a long time to change my ‘medicinal’ attitude to literature. I think it was a matter of gaining the confidence to trust my own taste…

  2. I’ve worked to get over being a book snob too, although grad school helped with me with this, rather than making it harder — I knew a lot of people who’s work involved breaking down barriers between high and low culture. But I still have a little bit of the book snob in me sometimes.

  3. Thanks for the comments. To some extent, I would say my reading is sort of ‘medicinal’ today–as a writer I study the books I read carefully to see how other writers do it. This I believe is an engagement as much as an evaluation. And it brings me much pleasure. I don’t want to sound like a downer on grad school. (I wish I could still be there in that period of my life sometimes.) Without grad school, I couldn’t have made it through Ulysses, and probably wouldn’t have read Woolf or Faulkner or have encountered the idea of “close reading.” But, there does seem to be an obsession with critical theory to the extent that it’s more important than the actual books that it’s exploring. I think getting wrapped up in the “high-mindedness” of theory really began to eat at my enjoyment of reading; I was subbing theory for engagement with the book itself. Also, those distinctions between high and low do seem false. I think even Shakespeare was considered low-brow at times, simply because his plays were popular productions and he had stuff in them even for the “groundlings.”

  4. I worked in a bookstore during college (lit major) and I barely ever read contemporary fiction — if a customer ever asked what I was reading, it was Zola, or Rabelais, or something. Now I read all kinds of books and I read for pleasure and for research for my own writing, and I don’t miss analyzing books at all!!! It’s so much more fun to just read!

  5. You know, I had the opposite experience; grad school took the snob right out of me after I realized there were far better, more exercised snobs at work in the industry and they didn’t need my armchair version. I’ve gone back to reading what tickles my imagination, be it literary or “popular.”

    Good post.

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