Top positive review
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engrossing and witty, informative and perspicacious
on September 1, 2002
Northwestern University professor and writer Joseph Epstein's latest book, "Snobbery" is a highly entertaining and well-considered look into the world of the snob: the upward-looking, the downward-looking, the 'virtuous,' and the reverse types (to name but a few). His coverage is by no means comprehensive, for snobbery is truly a broad topic, but Epstein touches well on those aspects of "the grave but localized disease" that are frequently encountered, and that he is most familiar with.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part (chapters one through ten) seeks (and finds) a fair definition of what snobbery is, explains how it works, and traces the history of snobbery in America from its revolutionary origins, to its classist WASP height, and finally to its omnipresent state in our current "egalitarian" times. Epstein makes especially good use of his popular self-deprecating humor in the first chapter, "It Takes One to Know One." The second part (chapters eleven through twenty-three) describes several prominent varieties of modern snobbery, such as college snobbery ("Jimmy goes to Rice, Jane goes to Vanderbilt"), club snobbery, intellectual snobbery, political snobbery, name-dropping, sexual and religious prejudice, celebrity hobnobbing, food and wine snobbery, and trend-following. The book is closed with a final chapter, the "Coda," where Epstein explains why he believes that snobbery, though it is a deplorable social practice, is here to stay. The mock reviews printed on the jacket's back cover (from Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Noel Coward) provide some good laughs for the familiar reader.
I know that I gave a rather critical review of Epstein's earlier book, "Ambition" (c. 1980), but this new volume (though it addresses a related topic) is quite different. Epstein's writing here is very much of the current times, and his narrative never loses the reader's attention. Quotations are always brief and used to explain a point, not invoked merely for pedantic decoration. Rather than spending time on describing famous historical snobs (as was done in previous "snobographies" by Thackeray and the Duke of Bedford), Epstein concentrates more on exposing the practice of snobbery as it is seen in everyday life today, among his colleagues and acquaintances, in contemporary magazines, and (most insightfully) within his own thoughts. As he rightfully suspects, his detailed look at major types of snobbery lets very few people off the hook, and there is scarcely a reader out there who won't find his or her own pet version(s) of snobbery described within the book's pages. I have seen Epstein field questions from audience members during a book talk featured on C-SPAN2's "Book TV," and the identification of secret snobs through the Q&A session was remarkable. It truly "takes one to know one." For the reader who is observant and curious of snobbery today, and who is not ashamed to admit that s/he too may be a snob of sorts, this book is one to read soon.