You know how you can go about your life, not really thinking about a certain thing, until it keeps coming at you from different and unrelated sources and then it’s all you can think about? I had that recently with snobbery.
A couple of weeks ago, a great blog post by author Matt Haig was passed around freely and with glee, although mainly by genre writers: 30 things to tell a book snob. A few of my favorites:
1. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.
2. Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.23. Imagination is play. Snobbery is the opposite of play.30. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.
As a reader, I used to be a more of a book snob, but now I mostly read genres of fiction that many people look down on: romance (historical romance, even), middle grade, young adult. As a writer, there are books that it’s kind of fun to look down on with fellow writers, books that are known for their addictive stories but “bad” writing. This post was a good reminder to not let myself revel in that snobbery.
Then, after knowing each other for 12 years, a good friend asked me what I’d learned from my grad school experience, i.e., what did I learn from having gone to grad school to become a philosophy professor and then quitting after two years without getting my Master’s degree.
My first answer: I learned that there are phases in life, and that’s okay. I was going to be a philosophy professor until I decided I didn’t want to be one. I’d explored an option that I decided against. No harm in that. And if anyone looks down on me because I didn’t wind up with an M.A., that is not a person I’d enjoy knowing, anyway.
My deeper answer: I began my struggle with snobbery.
Before that, I’d happily called myself a big city snob as I bemoaned the lack of things to do / provincial mindsets / homogeneity in the small city where my college was. In college, I’d expanded my horizons by pursuing friendships with intellectual / culinary / aesthetic snobs. I’d read opaque and experimental novels and seen highly symbolic movies and cooked complicated meals from impressive cookbooks.
This was a direct response to not being taken very seriously by my social group back home. During college I set out to explore that side of me — even if I was one of the few who knew it was there. I hung out with wonderful people, wrestled with ideas, and ate well.
I was also incredibly full of myself and felt superior to people who didn’t do all those things I did — despite the fact that I loved the farming side of my family and that I had a deep dark secret that I knew wouldn’t be accepted and understood by my college friends: I loved romance novels. Heck, I even ratted on a classmate for hiding a romance behind the textbook and reading her Harlequins in class (while praying that nobody found the stash of same I hid in my night table).
Of course, it’s a normal college thing to experiment with your self-image and go whole-hog into new ways of being. And as a shy person, snobbery provided a relatively safe haven because I was part of a tribe of other like-minded folks.
But it started to chafe in grad school.
Even if you love academic philosophy, you have to admit that there is at least a vein of snobbery in a discipline that once called itself the queen of the sciences. There is an assumption that if you don’t think deeply about things in the way we teach you to think deeply then you haven’t truly dealt with those things. I may be embroidering this memory, but I believe one of my undergrad profs actually said this — without the caveat of “in the way we teach you to think” that my feminist-thinking self must add. On the contrary, I don’t think I have to read a philosophical treatise on suffering to know how to be with someone who is suffering or to endure suffering myself; it may help, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.
I am not saying that every philosophy professor is a snob, or even that any individual prof is a snob. In fact, one of the least snobby people I know is a philosophy professor, highly respected by her colleagues and loved by her students and curious and interested in a wide range of things and I like her very much. I’m also not saying that thinking philosophically isn’t valuable — it certainly is. Neither is philosophy a bad pursuit that nobody should do. It’s a marvelous pursuit and I love that there are people whose lives have meaning and purpose because of philosophy, that it exists for the people it energizes. I’m even grateful for the ability I have to analyze an argument and a text that philosophy helped me hone.
It’s like this: philosophy, for me, is like an antibiotic. Many people can take it and are helped tremendously. I am allergic to it, so I have a bad reaction, a reaction that philosophy didn’t intend, perhaps, but the possibility for that reaction is part of it.
True confessions time. I am ashamed to admit it, but I was very freshly married at the time, and was occasionally embarrassed that my husband was not academic.* Nobody at school ever said anything remotely negative about my husband (except for the idiot who told me he’d be a better man for me because he’d have a photo of me in his wallet; the same idiot who was later kicked out of the program for harassing female students). But those fleeting thoughts taught me more than anything else that this academic philosophical world wasn’t for me. I wasn’t strong enough to resist the pull of snobbery.
So I left.
A recovering snob
Did I leave snobbery behind? Sadly, no. It’s a struggle, but the older I get, the less of a pull it exerts. The more different people I meet, the more I discover that there are many great ways to live a fulfilling life, that the way I’m familiar with isn’t automatically the best way. Being part of a multiracial church hammered that lesson home continually, because to make a truly cross-cultural ministry in which people from very different backgrounds all have power and agency, you can’t assume that your traditions are “right.” You gain so much in return, but you really do have to give that up.
A recent writing job reminded me that I still have a ways to go. I wrote profiles of 15 churches in my area, and the approach I took was to highlight what was great and unique about each of those places. Before I started, I assumed most of the churches would be similar, but they weren’t at all. Each one had something wonderful, something that surprised me, something I could learn from and be inspired by.
I’ve gotten to a place of acceptance of different points of view and ways of life, but I’d like to take it further and approach more of my interactions from a place of active curiosity. Do you like a genre of fiction I don’t — what do you love about it? Do you like a different worship style than I do — how does God speak to you through it? Do you like really dark TV shows — why?
This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned value judgments, because there is injustice, there are lifestyles that are unhealthy, and people do treat each other cruelly. I am a Christian, and there are certain tenets of my faith that are not negotiable. There is still good and evil, right and wrong. But most of my daily life is lived in between those two poles, in the realm of preference. And in that realm, I’d rather be big-hearted and curious. I’d rather play. I’d rather hear a story, maybe even yours.
* Just so nobody thinks I’m actually dissing my husband here, let me be clear: the man’s musical intelligence and sensitivity is off the chart, his emotional intelligence is something I rely on regularly, and he excels at his intellectually demanding job. As a student, he couldn’t habitually not study for tests and then ace them, and he didn’t generally get all jazzed up about purely academic subjects or arguments with little relation to regular life — that’s what I mean by “not academic.” A tiny drop in the bucket of the awesomeness of my husband.