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.”