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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.
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on September 9, 2002
Epstein gets extra points for being an equal-opportunity skewerer of snobs. Whereas the traditional view of Snobbery was that it was an upper-class WASP phenomenon, Epstein rightly points out the endemic snobbery among left-leaning intellectuals and the various self-appointed groups of Victims as well as the country-club set. This raises an interesting dilemna for Professor Epstein. The very people who purchase and read books about ideas are the ones most guilty of intellectual snobbery. Is it wise (or, in the long run, economically viable) to point out (at times in a not very complimentary fashion) the foibles of one's target audience?
Epstein writes with humor, analytic clarity, and efficient prose.
Buy this book...but first consider if you want your own snobbery exposed to such a sharp-tongued writer.
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VINE VOICEon August 26, 2003
This is a pretty good book. Not great. Sure, he pillories the major snobbish fashions of the day. Lots of fun making fun of people who are not as sensible as you or I.
He also does a wonderful job of showing how the basis for snobbery has changed, from WASPs and elitism based on real but arbitrary standards like the name of the school you attended, or your connections to established families --- to the modern world, warped by the arbitrary winds of fashionable status, the "hotness" of market driven mania.
Still, as a reviewer of great excellence, I must say that his discussion of his attempts to overcome a life of looking down on people and to enter the "snob free zone" limps along -- does he really want us to believe that such a place exists? Who would want to go there?
So read this book if you want penetrating insights, sound social commentary, and great amusement. If those are the kinds of things that a person like YOU finds interesting. I might even have given him 5 stars, but of course, I reserve such an award for true merit, of which I am the sole judge.
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on August 30, 2015
We read this for book club in 2004. Our group loved it and the subject matter provoked lively conversation. I must have it somewhere in my home, I would love to find it and read it again. Excellent, all the stars.
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on August 4, 2002
An extremely delightful read on a subject not easily or delicately discussed in American society. (Hell, just try reading a book on snobbery in an openly public space--mine was a NYC subway car--and notice the types of curious looks you'll receive from suspecting snobs and egalitarians alike.)
Where a pedantic sociologist would've come across as a parody of his own research material, Epstein writes in disarming prose that--for purposes of sheer delight, anyway--suggests the kind of scholar you'd most want to sit next to at a dinner party. A long established personal essayist, Epstein has returned to the first person narrative, which suits him well for this book, even more so than it did for his explicitly self-reflective collection of essays, "Narcissus Leaves The Pool." After all, anyone peddling themselves as an expert on snobbery had better come clean to his own lapses into the social disgrace and Epstein frequently does so with characteristic humor and self-deprecation. And regarding the reviews that say there's *too* much entertainment here and not enough enlightenment, I'd argue that even in dealing with all the cliche notions we have about what constitutes snobbery (not to mention all the synchedotal cliches we use in place of the word itself), Epstein still manages to chart the phenomenon's peculiar and seemingly paradoxical evolution in such a sustained democratic culture as ours.
More than peripherally Epstein is updating Tocqueville's insights into the social hierarchies America has developed in lieu of an official aristocratic class, where individual merit and accomplishment have usurped birthright, leaving the resultant pecking order to place valued emphasis on professional and financial success and levels of higher education--most identifiable by academic degrees and, more importantly, where one attained them. Sure, the visibility of social snobbery and the attention paid to it depends on where you live and with whom you associate; but it hardly takes a subscription to the New York Review of Books to see what good status-makers jobs, bank accounts and diplomas are in today's world.
For Epstein, snobbery took on a new life following the death of the "Waspocracy" (and the attendant capital-s Society) in the late sixties, which, in conjunction with the postwar G.I. Bill and Open Enrollment, saw the increase in college attendance rates across socioeconomic lines. Suddenly the exclusivity of higher education, one of the chief barriers to universal upward mobility, went under, allowing virtually anyone from any background to suddenly better himself in ways his parents never were able. Perhaps more tellingly, it also gave the local "boy who done good" the unprecedented chance to look down his nose at his own humble origins--an aftereffect of the Waspocracy's decline that Epstein also deals with.
As a recent college graduate (from a school that I don't whether or not I'm sorry to say appears in this book), I especially enjoyed Epstein's screed on the petty US News and World Report rankings of American universities: for years a source of ridiculous anxiety and image-consciousness among fine (but alas, not first tier!) schools and an almost Pavlovian stimulus for embarassing displays of institutional self-congratulation among their supposed betters. (Forgive the snobbish schadenfraude, but I wonder what definitive source on academia parents will consult once that financially imperiled magazine folds.)
Also terrific was Epstein's take on the arrival of that late 80's/early 90's genus of snob: the "virtucrat," or someone whose superiority is entirely based on heightened sensitivity to global issues, usually unburdened by the added inconvenience of having done anything to resolve those issues. A happy accomplice to this breed of snob is (or was) political correctness, which doesn't even bother with individual merit or accomplishment to assert its moral prestige since anyone, anywhere can claim they are more "aware" than you. Celebrities are notorious virtucrats. If Richard Gere thinks American apathy is adding insult to the injury countless Tibetan Buddhists have suffered at the hands of the Chinese, he might have the same magnanimity to consider what horrors his last few films have inflicted upon us callous westerners at home. On the more mundane level, you have to admire the chutzpah of the idiot who in this day and age still asks the smoker, "Do you know what you're doing to your body?" Epstein's in good company with conservative wits like P.J. O'Rourke and Tom Wolfe in blasting such practitioners of snobbish sanctimony. And given that this book is just as much a critique on the etiquette through which snobbery manifests itself as it is on the unspoken inner pyschology of the snob himself--it's hard to really accuse Epstein of defacing the spirit of political activism and civic concern that many virtucrats believe they're embodying. It's not so much the message he has a problem with as it is the style: Fine if you're a vegetarian, just don't make a face when my filet mignon arrives.
Overall: Anyone who's ever known a snob, seen one or been one would benefit from reading this book. And at that rate, Joseph Epstein would run the risk of becoming a very rich man.
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on September 9, 2013
I read the Kindle version of this book. I agree with some of the other reviewers that it seems, at times, a platform on which to display the author's own snobbish sensibilities (Burberry coats, supper clubs, etc.). However, he fesses up to being a snob pretty early on, so I'm willing to try and overlook the somewhat common references to his own superiority.

What I really struggled to overlook though were the rampant typos throughout the kindle version of this book. We're talking nearly every page. It reminds me of the closed captioning you sometimes see for programs that are televised live, in which you can forgive the occasional slip of finger. But this is a book, not a live event, and it's like no one proofread it at all. Missing punctuation, extra spaces, misspellings, wrong words.... The typos are so bad that sometimes the correct word isn't even immediately obvious and you have to sit there and actively puzzle it out. I'm shocked that something this lacking could come out of Houghton Mifflin. Isn't this exactly what copy editors are for?

Here are just a couple examples from a quick skim:

"Random Hoiise"
"An expensive bodte of wine"
"Adolf Hider"
"The Mew Yorker"
"The Due de Saint-Simon"
"Robert Musd" ??? Robert Musil?

I wish I could rate the book separately for content and execution. I'd give it a 4 for content, but a 1 for execution. Until that feature comes along, I'll have to settle for a 2.
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on November 9, 2002
Joseph Epstein seems to have had a lot of fun writing Snobbery: The American Version. Whether you will have fun reading it may depend on your tolerance for random foreign phrases. (Some of them sent me to the dictionary, such as "epater le bourgeois.") He's also not afraid of unpleasant self-examination ("Sometimes all it takes for me to drop an enthusiasm is the knowledge that someone I think commonplace has picked it up." p. 11). The mostly suppressed snob in me also couldn't resist chuckling at this:
Donald Trump... his confident vulgarity... if he were to be certified as upper class, many others put into that category would doubtless do what they could to find another social class to fit into. (p. 68)
(Whew! I'm in no danger there!)
Epstein's thesis is that few people in the U.S. are comfortable with themselves, what they have, and who they know. Snobbery lets us feel valued and gives order to our worlds. (He posits that, before the nineteenth century, snobbery did not exist because people were socially locked in place, unable to move up the social ladder.) He agrees with most people that snobbery is a shortcoming. ("[T]he snob... cannot seem to understand that only natural distinction and genuine good-heartedness are what truly matter." p. 247) But he also admits that he is unable to rid himself of it. ("If I didn't make these little judgments... I'd feel almost as if I didn't exist." p. 249) While he states that snobbery is foolish, he is also realist enough to know that it sometimes makes sense to take the snobbish path so that one doesn't later feel that one has missed out. He told his son to go to a "snob college" so that he wouldn't have to wonder for the rest of his life whether his life would have been better if he had. Epstein's son went to Stanford and agreed with his father - it wasn't such a superior academic experience, but was worth having been in on.
The daughter of Jewish intellectuals, I found most useful his analysis of why Jews and homosexuals have become the "tastemakers" of our society through couture clothing, literary essays, and theater. He notes that, in the historically tenuous place of being Jewish or gay, one can't help but notice the subtle gradations of social class. Although he derides a culture of victimization (people claiming moral superiority due to the suffering of their ancestors), as many conservative writers do, Epstein's not immune to it. He says he prefers being a Jew in the US to being a Jew in Israel: "Being part of a small though active minority, I felt that I had an interesting angle..." (p. 167)
This is a survey course in snobbery. The literary snobbery section alone could have easily become a book. The chapter on the modern anti-snobs could also have. The result of this broad-brush approach, though, is that you are bound to see the snobbery in some aspect of yourself. You will close this book wondering why you think what you think and why you criticize what you criticize. Part of this book's appeal is that Epstein makes you wonder about this without writing a self-help book or claiming to have the answers.
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on August 11, 2012
Definitely thought provoking about the experiences we have had in life. If you like to think about how the people around you behave, this is a great read. It also gives you an honest look at how you interact with others.
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on August 14, 2015
This is probably Joseph Epstein at his best. "Snobbery: The American Version" is an easy read where the author gives readers his opinion about renown literarily and popular characters both from America or Europe over the subject in question. Great summer or any season non-fictional book, witty and with a pinch of sarcasm... stirred; not shaken.
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on April 2, 2003
Joseph Epstein shares three characteristics with David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise: (1) they are both Midwesterners; (2) they both went to the University of Chicago which they believe makes them intellectuals; and (3) neither one of them knows a damned thing about the Northeast, the center of snobbery in America.

That said, Mr. Epstein has still written an entertaining book that provides real insight into its subject. While repeatedly assuring his readers that he is not a snob himself (he clearly is a blistering snob), he provides a wonderful discussion of how snobbery permeates every social group in America. His descriptions of the groups he does know something about (Chicago Jews, University of Chicago intellectuals and a variety of celebrities that he has personally known) are both perceptive and entertaining.

If you like this book, consider buying Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America by Nelson Aldrich, a wealthy New Englander who provides a fine analysis of snobbery in that part of the world.
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