I Go to Opera and Stay Wide Awake

Snobbery: The American Version
Joseph Epstein

snobberyI fancy myself a radical egalitarian.  I’m also a horrible snob.

Thankfully Joseph Epstein has delivered 251 extremely readable pages that have convinced me my otherwise finely tuned radar for cognitive dissonance does not have a dead spot. Snobbery, I think Epsetin would say, is perfectly normal.

Epstein is a Chicagoan and that probably accounts for how I think of him when I think of him. When I think of him is basically whenever I stumble across his writing in an anthology or, less frequently, a magazine. What I always come away from those encounters thinking is ‘I should read more of this guy.’

Of course I then promptly fail to do so until the cycle com around again.

I’m tempted to borrow a label from the visual arts and call Epstein a miniaturist. But that does as poor a job of accurately describing him as obsessive does. And yet there appears something both miniature and compulsive about spending 250 plus pages on a single, venial habit of mind.

There are any number of essayists who could torture such a subject for so long. Quite a few of them might make you wonder if some serious penance and a firm purpose of amendment weren’t called for. That’s not Epstein’s way.

PFC Joseph Epstein circa 1960(This photo originally appeared in  The Atlantic. You should check it out, it's a good magazine.

PFC Joseph Epstein circa 1960
(This photo originally appeared in The Atlantic. You should check it out, it’s a good magazine.)

What Epstein does, and I mean this in the most praiseworthy way, is make you think you’re having a pleasant chat about the subject. Along the way he uses every tool of the writer’s craft. You’ll meet characters whose foibles illuminate the matter at hand. You’ll get self-confession. You’ll get historical anecdotes. You’ll even get  literary and classical (and maybe even historical) references.

Yet there’s nothing unpleasant about any of it. For me, the best essayists pull off the neat trick of displaying what a real, solid education looks like without making me feel stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel plenty of other things. Lazy. Poorly read. Under-educated. But not in a way that makes me feel I’ve ventured into a realm where I don’t belong. That particular outcome seems to be owned by a discrete sector of the professoriate. Spending time with Joe Epstein is just, well, there’s no other word for it, pleasant.

Now what about this snobbery thing? “The snob’s problem,” Epstein writes, “is that he allows himself to make judgments based on fashion…” (p. 176) Whew, off the hook two-thirds of the way through the book, right? I may be a lot of things but I’m no follower of fashion, dedicated or otherwise.

The genius who intuited the essence of snobbery. Yogi Berra, 1956

The genius who intuited the essence of snobbery.Yogi Berra, 1956 

Hold your horses, though. There’s more.

“Yet one doesn’t have to be a snob to want one’s tastes in life’s superfluities not to become too widespread…” This is a little too close to home. It is, unfortunately, a widely-understood phenomena. What did Yogi Berra, my favorite philosopher from my Dad’s generation, say? “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”

Epstein actually doesn’t quote Yogi, but I suspect that’s because  he’s a Cubs fan (which must be its own form of reverse snobbery). And even if that isn’t the case Yogi, if I remember correctly, is from St. Louis. To a native of Chitown, like Epstein, that has to be like being from Philadelphia is for a kid from the Bronx like me. (Ah, more snobbery.)

One of the bigger academic guns Epstein does trot out is the fabulously named, fellow midwesterner Thorstein Veblen. Veblen was a sociologist and economist (there was more possibility before the academy started to ossify) who’s most famous for penning  The Theory of the Leisure Class. I may get back to revisiting that seminal work someday but here’s what you need to know about it for now: it’s where the idea of keeping up with the Joneses originated.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)The man who named 'conspicuous consumption.'

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
The man who named ‘conspicuous consumption.’

OK, so am I doomed to be tortured, fully inhabiting a role that makes me cringe? I think not. If you go back to that bit I quoted above there’s an important distinction made. A snob follows fashion, trying to perhaps compensate for something else lacking in his or her make-up. To want to have your own area of expertise, to believe you know the difference between what’s valuable and what’s foolish, well, that’s snobbery.

By comparison that’s not a problem at all. Because after all, aren’t we all involved in defining our own little bit of the world?



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