Let’s face it -- times have changed. We live in a modern world, and many of the hallmarks of old-school snobbery -- including the very things that inspired those words, the hallmark on your silver and which old school your children attended -- are just no longer really indicative of social status. So what is today’s snob to do? What is the standard to follow, anyway?
Never fear, snobbish friends! Joseph Epstein is more than happy to explain that to you in his new book, Snobbery: The American Version. Using his best professorial tone, Epstein briefs his readers on his connections to snobbery (that chapter is entitled “It Takes One to Know One”), the development and history of snobbery (concluding that it has always been around and is probably, in fact, human nature), and the current manifestations of snobbery. These include the use of children as items of status, culinary opportunities to prove that one is better than average, and some interesting methods of reverse snobbery, among many others. Honestly, the variety of ways to be a snob seems to be nearly infinite.
And all of this is not just Epstein’s opinion, mind you -– although he has the distinction of being the first author to write a serious book on snobbery for quite some time, according to the jacket notes. He supplies ample quotes from myriad other sources that expand upon and confirm his basic theories. Some of these quotes are real humdingers, too. Take, for instance, the following, from Balzac: “Nothing fortifies friendship more than one of two friends thinking himself superior to the other.” Or this, from John O’Hara, who had just ordered himself a lovely new car: “I got that broad in her nightgown on my radiator and them two R’s, which don’t mean rock’n’roll.”
Epstein himself can be similarly pithy. The whole book, in fact, is studded with some great one-liners, making it a handy reference volume for those who suspect they might someday want to make somebody feel lower-class. That does not, however, seem to be the author’s aim. He believes that just about every person on Earth is some form of snob. “I should be surprised if there is anyone outside a Trappist monastery who has gone through this book who hasn’t at one point –- and perhaps at several -– met up with his or her own snobberies,” he writes. He strives merely to trace the evolution of snobbishness, and to clarify its essence.
This amusing book’s sole downfall is that occasionally Epstein gets a bit too erudite for his own good and the pace lags a bit. When he is being his witty, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek best, this book is a delight. When he is not -– well, try to read those bits around bedtime. Mostly, though, it’s a good read. Recommended for all the upwardly-mobile or downwardly-looking citizens of the world. Which is to say, everybody.