life · reading

Book Snobbery

Coming across the brilliant post on book snobbery and then reading Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (more precisely, a chapter named Abbot Hugh’s Advice) I felt I had to write in (some kind of) defense of contempt, of snobbery. Is it truly wrong to hold bad writing and bad reading in low regard? Not all of bad writing or reading, of course. Some of it is excusable – there are many subtleties to take into account when judging.

For the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important“, says Hugh. “First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt. Second, that he not blush to learn from any man. Third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.” No writing whatsoever? My mind cannot accept this. It simply doesn’t sound right. Not having the inclination towards constant learning, not improving one’s understanding of the text, not being one’s own most honest and harsh critic and editor and, most of all (it happens!), discharging every constructive criticism with comments whose common denominator are childishly defensive thoughts as ‘you are just envious/a snob/why don’t you then do it if you think you know better’ – these are all traits that make bad writing hard not to disdain.

And, about not looking down upon anyone… (of the second lesson there is only one thing to say – I agree) As Jacobs notes, Hugh saw life as a pilgrimage, and each person as a viator, a wayfarer.. “There is therefore no cause for arrogance towards others who walk the same path: we are all moving ‘step by step’ in an orderly way.” Yes, but what when a reader (because here I’m interested in one’s reading pilgrimage) is not moving at all. What when one can’t see that it’s trash and one likes it?¹ and pays no attention to any commentary (however well grounded) that is not in praise of the beloved book? It is the same issue as with bad writing – it is decided stubbornness, proudly chosen blindness that shows a lack of reason and intelligence… I cannot help but feel sorrow, mild disappointment and a pinch of despair.


¹W.H. Auden summed up readers responses to books thus: “For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see this is trash and I don’t like it.”

4 thoughts on “Book Snobbery

  1. Hello Anna,

    I think it perfectly reasonable to look down on writing one thinks is shoddily written (and, sadly, there is much around that is very shoddily written indeed).I do feel, though, that once one starts looking down on the reader, then a line is crossed that shouldn’t be crossed.

    Of course, it is reasonable to say that the reader in question has not developed a good literary taste. But the reader is under no obligation to develop a good literary taste. For instance, i don’t have a very fine taste when it comes to white wines: I am happy to drink the nastiest, cheapest plonk (much to the dismay of my wife!) It is entirely reasonable to say that when it comes to white wines, I have not developed a good taste. But I don’t know that is sufficient reason to look down on me! :)

    So, by analogy, that someone has not developed a refined literary taste is no reason to look down on that person. Maybe they don’t want to; or may they haven’t the opportunity; or whatever. Or maybe they just have different priorities.

    But the problem is, as you put it:

    …comments whose common denominator are childishly defensive thoughts as ‘you are just envious/snob/why don’t you then do it if you think you know better’

    There does seem to me to be a widespread resentment against the very concept of literary values, and it is this that I find problematic. Literature of quality is difficult to some degree; and there is no reason why anyone should tackle difficulty without an assurance that their effort will be rewarded. And increasingly, it seems to me, this assurance is not given. Those who do tackle difficult works, and claim to find them enriching, are all too frequently thought of as affected and precious – or just plain liars; and those who dislike popular books that are badly written (not all popular books are, of course: many are very fine indeed) are frequently labelled “snobs”. I have seen a lot of this kind of thing around the net, and it is dispiriting.

    Best wishes,

    1. Hello Himandri,
      and best wishes to you too..

      I see I should have been more elaborate on an account of looking down on reader…
      As I have said, not every bad writing or reading can (deserves to?) be looked down upon. There are good (or better than other) reasons why. I will not go that way because I’m interested in ‘inexcusable’ reasons. It is the stubborness? in a person, a reader who has opportunities and choices and rejects any normal, constructive conversation about them. Even a hint of conversation. Like a child covering ears with hands and insisting that he cannot hear a thing. It is decided narrow/close-mindedness that I look down upon. Why would not someone enjoying trash SF and fantasy pick up Ursula Le Guin, or Wells, Gray’s ‘Lanark’ maybe? Someone reading only/mainly romance cannot enjoy Bronte? Someone reading crime cannot have a bite of Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’? We choose how we read as well as what we read and one can read ‘The Name of the Rose’ as a detective novel only. Maybe there are better examples, other titles I could have named, but I think you can see what I mean.
      I am not expecting anybody to tackle Joyce or Proust. I only hope they move a bit away from trash. There are plenty authors of quality easily ‘accessible’ to everyone.

      The analogy you suggested is not a good one, I think.. Wine being something so substantially different from the book. Our reading has an impact on the way we understand the world, other people and ourselves, on our reasoning and our behavior.. No one is, of course, under an obligation to develop oneself, be it as a reader or human being. Except, maybe, one should owe it to ones own self..

      1. Hello Anna,

        Yes, all analogies do break down sooner or later, don’t they? Perhaps mine broke down a bit earlier than it should have done!

        I used to know someone – I won’t call him a “friend” as such – who was fluent in 4 languages, and used to harangue the rest of us for not being good linguists. He kept telling us over and over again how important it was to know languages other than your own; and, although we did agree with his points, we very soon tired of him, and began to find him irritating. For while it is clearly a good thing to know a few languages, we all have different priorities, and no-one has the time or the energy to pursue everything we know is worth pursuing.

        Like yourself, I too hold to the view that, as you put it, “our reading has an impact on the way we understand the world, other people and ourselves, on our reasoning and our behavior”. And yes, it does depress me when people capable of tackling literature of quality make a conscious decision not to do so. It depresses me even more when the very concept of literary quality is derided, or denied; or when books that require depth of thought are thoughtlessly dismissed; or when those who value literature are subjected to name-calling (snobs, elitists, etc). One need not look too far around the internet to see examples of all of these things. The steady sidelining of literary culture within mainstream society is a very real phenomenon, and it cannot be anything other than depressing to those who value it. I am fully with you on that. And yet, at the same time, I have a terrible fear of becoming like that person I had mentioned earlier!

        I think the pressures of society have much to do with it. Reading serious literature is generally considered decidedly “uncool”. (Not, perhaps, quite as uncool as listening to classical music, but that’s another story!) In the meantime, all we can do, I suppose, is to carry on the conversation as best we can – to read, and to talk about our reading in thoughtful and informed tones. And – who knows? – maybe some people might respond. But yes, I do agree, the cultural landscape in the Western world, where people choose to ignore and even to ridicule literary culture, even though virtually the entire literary culture of the world is easily available at our fingertips, is profoundly dismaying.

        All the best, Himadri

        1. I am sure you will not become like the person you mentioned for you have wisdom enough (if I may conclude so with premises being your comments and blog) to avoid it.. Sometimes it is difficult to stay open-minded (or to remember your open-mindedness) but, I think I am on a right way, too.

          What to say.. it has always been like that – people preferring shallow entertainment. One has only to glance back through history to see it. It is saddening. And disappointing. Maybe in these times it seems worst than ever just because there are more people on planet, and more of them making art (or ‘art’). Nevertheless, one is certainly not to lose hope. And one is to do his/her best…

          Thank you for this short conversation, Himandri, I enjoyed it very much.
          Best regards,

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