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Cover Review

Better Fewer, but Better

SNOBBERY: The American Version, By Joseph Epstein, Houghton Mifflin: 274 pp., $25

July 14, 2002|JOHN SIMON | John Simon is the theater critic for New York magazine and music critic for The New Leader. His most recent book is "Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry."

Some books are necessary, some are wonderful, few are both. In that select group belongs Joseph Epstein's "Snobbery: The American Version." I would rank it with works by Alexis de Tocqueville and Thorstein Veblen, except that it is more timely than the former's and infinitely more amusing than the latter's. It is one of the rare books that entertain as much as they teach.

For years Epstein has labored valiantly in several venues: as editor, literature teacher, book critic and, perhaps best of all, personal essayist. The personal essay, in which one writes a thoughtful epistle to one's fellows on a variety of subjects, is an endangered species. But those who can appreciate this intimate, reflective, civilized genre are company as fit as they are few. Epstein's dozen or so collections of such essays have been eagerly awaited and blissfully savored by the sophisticated and whoever else felicitously chanced upon them.

With "Snobbery," Epstein undertakes a book-length essay in a series of interconnected essays, each of two dozen chapters addressing a different type of snobbery. The amazingly alert and perceptive author pursues snobbishness from its spotlighted stages to its hidden breeding grounds and discovers striking varieties in crannies the rest of us would have overlooked.

In the chapter on gastronomic snobbery, Epstein writes, "Turns out

Nor are they limited to America. Even though the book concentrates on the American scene, it is international in scope and global in erudition. It is a tasty cake made mouthwatering by an array of raisins: pertinent or delightfully impertinent quotations culled from world literature, neither just American nor merely expectable, as from, say, Proust and Balzac, Edith Wharton and Henry James. Many come from unexpected but apt sources: Jules Renard and Giacomo Leopardi, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and George Santayana, Lord Chesterfield and Lord Berners, the Duc de Saint-Simon and Martin and Kingsley Amis. And those are just some literary ones; there are as many from the social sciences, philosophy and journalism. One senses that Epstein has read everything and either has a wizard memory or has extracted quotations from lifelong voracious reading for this all-encompassing compendium.

And crammed it is, with so many goodies that it would require the judgment of Solomon to determine what to quote and what, necessarily, to omit. Just transcribing all the passages I have underlined in my copy would yield a sizable brochure. Perhaps the best way to begin is to list the types of snobbery that rate separate chapter headings. We get "The Democratic Snob," "Snob-Jobbery," "O WASP, Where Is Thy Sting-a-ling," "Class (All but) Dismissed" and "Such Good Taste." Also snobberies based on status, wealth, showy education, pseudo-intellectualism in academia, politics, sexuality and religion, novelty, name-dropping, celebrity, "Anglo-, Franco-, and Other Odd philias," food and drink and being with-it. And a good many lesser others.

Epstein is equally adept at incrimination and self-incrimination. On his own snobbery: "On the Outer Drive in Chicago, I am behind a car on whose back window is a decal reading 'Illinois State University.' My view is that one oughtn't even to have a sticker that reads 'All Souls, Oxford,' but Illinois State?" On other people's: Gore Vidal "has made a career out of hard work in the service of hauteur.... [He] doesn't court the love of critics or anyone else. Self-love, which in him never goes unrequited, is sufficient." Again: "People nowadays attempt to outdo one another not in the distinction of their forebears but in the purity of their suffering--my holocaust is greater than your slavery--establishing snobberies of virtue by way of victimhood."

And again: "It used to be who you were, then it was what you did, then it was what you had, then it was whom you knew--and now it's beginning to be how many people know you."

Ours is the era of democratic middleman supremacy and middle-class snobbery. "To be middle-class positions one nicely to be both an upward- and a downward-looking snob, full, simultaneously, of aspiration to rise to the position of those above and of disdain for those below." "The agent, the broker, the trader, the marketer, the investment banker, the all-purpose executive, the operator, the entrepreneur, the man or woman who does not provide the service or the product but helps bring it to market, usually acquiring a solid profit for him- or herself along the way--these are the figures who seem most admired ... just now." The person, in short, who neither builds nor creates, just takes the cash and makes sure of getting "the vice presidency, the best table, the fine wine, the excellent opera tickets."

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