The irritating thing about Joseph Epstein's Snobbery: American Style is that it almost says something interesting. In the first chapter or two, Epstein advances an intriguing (and, I think, true) premise: That "capital-S Society" (as he refers to it) has declined into near-irrelevance, and that snobbery is now no longer simply about social class, but has fragmented.

This is an interesting thesis, and had Epstein pursued it, it could have formed the backbone of an interesting book. He could have talked about the breakdown of Culture into subculture (consider, for instance, this booklog: I consider myself somewhat snobbish in my reading tastes, but my snobbery is very subcultural -- to consider Vinge great and Chalker a hack is to make a distinction that people in other subcultures would never make). He could have talked about the ways that much snobbery is wrapped around knowledge (how, for instance, it doesn't materially impact matters snobbish if someone likes David Eddings, as long as they're aware that Eddings has a generally bad reputation), and how the Internet makes knowledge acquisition worlds easier, thereby democratizing such knowledge.

But those things aren't in the book he wrote. The book he wrote, bizarrely, proceeded to ignore its initial thesis, and talk about snobbery as if it were still a matter of social class, and were still defined on a society-wide basis. So he's got chapters on name-dropping, on fashion, on Europhilia, and talks about them as if they were all universal aspects of snobbery, rather than merely indicia of the particular subculture ("good school" liberal arts academia) in which he spends his time. In short, he briefly outlined the wider landscape, then narrowed his vision to his immediate surroundings and wrote of it as if it were the whole landscape. Disappointing.

Still, this could be forgivable. After all, I'm not so harsh that I'd refuse to consider the merits of a book simply because it wasn't the book I wanted it to be. But Epstein commits more serious sins. The first sin comes around in his chapter on politics, where his point is that liberals are incredibly snobs -- he dubs them "virtucrats" -- who look down at conservatives as mean-hearted Neanderthals. It's a point that's broadly true, in caricature, but to state that liberalism is privileged in snobbery over conservatism is simply ridiculous, given the derisive attack-politics swath of conservativism. (Worst of all, Epstein invokes that great spectre of "political correctness." It was probably at his first utterance of that deeply stupid phrase that he completely lost my good will.)

Moreover, Epstein is just unpleasantly snobbish. Not in the ways he acknowledges -- in those, he's self-deprecatingly charming. Instead, his unpleasantness comes from his underlying sneering tone about any who possess any sort of snobbery; ironically enough, it almost comes across as a classist thing -- he seems to view the snobberies of other people as unpleasant social grasping by classless plebes. In a book like this, it's important to like and trust the author; by the end, I neither liked Epstein nor trusted him.

Ultimately, this is the sort of book that's best read in abstract -- if Arts and Letters Daily links to a summary of it (which I believe they already have, some months ago), it'll be worth reading; but the book itself can be safely skipped.


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