Joseph Epstein's book of essays about snobbery reveals far more about him than it does his subject. "Snobbery: The American Version" is a title that seems to promise at least some serious sociology, but this book dwells instead on Epstein's "own experience of snobbery'' and "the sorts of snobbery to which he is susceptible." Those sorts are many.
Such a snobbish pronouncement, I know! That's the hazard of reviewing a book about snobbery. Like it or hate it, you'll sound snooty or snotty when you begin to assess it. This, to his credit, is one of Epstein's essential points. Snobbery can be hard to distinguish from assessment. What, exactly, differentiates snobbery from the drawing of any distinctions?
Having raised this idea, however, Epstein doesn't wrestle with it. He's a writer known for light personal essays, and he falls back on his forte throughout the book. (The previous work by this former editor of The American Scholar was "Narcissus Leaves the Pool.") He tends to come up with a chewy thesis about snobbery, crack a few jokes, and move on. In this fashion, the chapter with the best thesis, "The Democratic Snob," winds down in only 10 pages after suggesting that snobbery didn't really exist before the rise of democracy (and its social mobility) in the 19th century.
Instead, he devotes chapter after chapter to such snob byways as status, name-dropping, class, celebrity, trendiness, Anglo- and Francophilia, and whether what he calls the Waspocracy still wields any power in America. There's also an unfortunate chapter called "Fags and Yids," which discusses why the most influential American tastemakers are homosexual or Jewish or both, without examining whether that premise is actuality or perception.
Virginia Woolf, one of the dozens of writers, wits, and public figures whose best lines Epstein mines on this topic, wrote that the "essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people." Epstein revises, wisely, saying that the essence of snobbery is "to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people."
He elaborates on this point with a fine explication of how snobbery works and why it fails to satisfy. "Snobbery is the calm pleasure with which you greet the news that the son of a woman you have just been introduced to is majoring in photojournalism at Arizona State University while your own daughter is studying art history at Harvard." It's also the discomfort you feel at being "introduced to a woman whose son is studying classics at Oxford." (Should the reader be some pragmatist who steered a child into photojournalism, that just signals reverse snobbery, and Epstein has observations on that, too.)
Such observations can be entertaining, and such entertainment can be excuse enough for a book. But if a book is going to be the equivalent of nine courses of amuse bouche (did I mention his not-in-the-least-fresh chapter on food snobbery?), it helps a great deal if the waiter er, author is personable. This is even more important if the topic is something as inherently unappetizing as snobbery.
Not a lot in this book feels bountiful, and sometimes what does such as the acknowledgement that "whatever gaiety this book has is largely owing to ... the magical music of Fats Waller, which I listened to almost constantly over the past two years" feels pretentious. There's a whiff of score-settling in many anecdotes, and he seems constitutionally unable to quote a friend's bon mot without including some detail that signals to readers that he, Epstein, was really the cleverest guy at the table. Maybe so, but if you'll excuse me, I've got to powder my nose.
Carol Doup Muller is a former book review editor of the San Jose Mercury News.