The Condescension Club

It doesnt matter what you read, as long as you do

My sister was the first one to identify me as a book snob. I've always read a lot of contemporary fiction — whatever's new in paperback, mostly, because I took a lot of public transportation (back when I had time to spend 45 minutes traveling three miles to work) and didn't like lugging heavy hardcovers around. This predilection didn't come about when I was a kid (when I read Nancy Drew), but sometime after college, when I found I couldn't tear myself away from the classics and the Big Novels of the Day. I'd talk about books with my father sometimes: He reads a lot of science fiction (and sci-fi magazines), but he's read a fair amount of literary stuff, as well. Maybe I'd talk a little about books with my brother, too; he's a voracious reader of anything he can get his hands on. My mom reads popular mysteries, but she doesn't talk about them much. My sister, though, she reads Harlequins (you know, those romantic mass-market paperbacks).

Let me be fair: Debbie reads a lot of different things, including Harlequins. And she reads all the time — while brushing her teeth, while eating breakfast, while stopped at red lights. (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Maybe.) Because she's constantly reading, she's also constantly going through every book on her shelves, rereading favorites and titles she hasn't cracked in a while, for which I envy her. It can be hard to keep up with an appetite like that, and sometimes you just want something fluffy, a palate cleanser between heartier dishes. Besides, she explained, Harlequins are just the right length to read during a quick flight, and then you don't have to feel guilty about leaving them on the plane. They're mindless, sure, but entertaining. What was my problem?

She told me I didn't like to talk to her about books because I assumed she was some "lower" kind of reader, and I blushed with recognition. It's not that I thought she wasn't as smart as I — far from it — but that I didn't think anyone who could read a romance novel would enjoy a conversation about some obscure title the Times had recommended.

But now that there's all this talk about The Da Vinci Code — because of the lawsuit and the movie and the paperback — I can relate to my sister's belief that snobbery can hold back your reading pleasure. At a recent Fight Club (book club, whatever), the gals and I started chatting about Dan Brown's crappy thriller (this right after discussing the best book any of us had read in ages, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). I mentioned that a friend had described The Da Vinci Code as "the worst book you'll ever love," and she was right: I had cringed at every awful sentence, yet found it compulsive reading. (Of course, I was stuck on a long flight with no other books, but still.) A Fight Club compadre confessed, "I just can't bring myself to read it. Especially not now."

I recognize her snobbish hesitation because I've had it, too. I admit I felt kind of dirty for having read The Da Vinci Code, even though I'd joined about a zillion other people in doing so. With all the fabulously written books in the world, why waste time and lower your literary values with that one? It's entertaining, yes. It's easy on the brain, definitely (not like another book we read recently in Fight Club, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I loved but which made my gray matter ache). Mostly, though, it was just nice to read something lots of other people were reading.

I once had a boyfriend who didn't like to do anything lots of other people were doing. You know this guy, right? He believed that anything popular — even popular with really cool folks — had to be shit. He was no follower, oh no; he'd hoist his own petard ... or, I mean, chart his own course. Anyway, he was a pain in the ass, because every time someone I respected would tell me about something I might like, this guy would put the kibosh on it. The snobbery of nonconformity.

It's easy to do that with books, too. If you read only what's big this week in the book clubs or what looks attractive on the "New in Paperback" shelves, you'll read a lot of crap. Likewise, if you base your reading choices mainly on the description of a book, you'll miss a lot of gems. (Gilead, for instance, sounds like the most boring of boring stories possible: A dying Iowa preacher writes a farewell letter to his young son. But I'm telling you to go read it now. Dip in to the bookstore on the way home and pick up a copy. If you don't like it, I'll reimburse you for the cost of the book — but you'll have to tell me why.) But the converse is true, too: If you skip anything with an Oprah label on it, you'll pass over some genuinely good stuff.

Now that The Da Vinci Code has finally been released in paperback (after three years only in hardcover), I'm reminded of how I felt while reading it — not impressed, not clever, not enlightened, but connected. As the plane landed, I was eight pages from the end, so as I stood and waited for the aisle to clear, I continued reading. An older gent two seats up saw what I was doing and said, "Oh, you can't stop now." I smiled and replied: "Don't you dare tell me the ending." "Wouldn't dream of it," he said. "I know just how you feel."

Random old guy on a plane knows just how I feel? In this case, yes. The Da Vinci Code may have cured me of my book snobbery — or at least put it in remission. And my sister may yet forgive me.

 
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