What is a Book Snob?

Amanda Nelson

Staff Writer

Amanda Nelson is an Executive Director of Book Riot. She lives in Richmond, VA.

If there’s an insult the internet loves most, it’s “elitist.” (Well, right after “bully.”) The word has lost some of its meaning due to overuse, now that it’s lobbed at those who suggests that books should have a particular standard of quality. Now I wonder- where is the line between being a snob, and just expressing a personal preference, or being a snob and expecting something good from writers?

It seems that “book snob” is like that cliche about porn: we don’t know the definition, exactly, but we can rage about it when we see it. The most obvious elitism comes from staunch supporters of/participants in old media and book reviewing models (who have a further tendency to be white, male, and old) who bemoan the rise of “unqualified” book bloggers, or those who declare that their book format preference isn’t just more convenient or includes a prettier object, but is actually morally superior (the tired e-book vs. physical book debate). These are people who believe that their world view or method of doing something (including talking about books) is the only proper and correct view or method.

But we’ve gotten to the point now where expressing the view that one book or writer is objectively better than another book or writer opens you up to being called a snob. I wonder if this has anything to do with social media- have we all started to feel like all of our thoughts without exception are valid, correct, and worthy of expression via various status updates; therefore, our personal preferences are also valid and correct? I’m not hating on social media here- I’m one of those people who is legitimately interested in the minutiae of people’s lives. I’m just proposing that maybe it’s made people (myself included) feel more validated in holding unexamined opinions because hey, people are listening/agreeing, so my thoughts must be true. Which leads us further down the road: if personal preference is an accurate gauge of quality, then there is no “better” in a book. Art, after all, is subjective.

Except it isn’t, at least not up to a point. Anecdata: I visited the Met for the first time a few years ago, for the Picasso exhibit. I’d always thought Picasso’s works were sort of weird, and not pretty, and I didn’t “get it.” Then I saw his sketches of models and early, more realism-based work and had a revelation of Picasso’s grasp of the fundamentals of visual art. He could draw like a mother-fucker, and had used those skills as a jumping off point for exploring perspective. The same concept applies in books, doesn’t it? Writing has its fundamentals: grammar usage, clearly conveying your thoughts, the proper use of tools like foreshadowing, symbolism, metaphor. If you can’t handle those fundamentals, your work will be bad- objectively, inarguably bad. Literature also has its Picassos- those who are aware of and masters of the rules, so much so that they can break them in pursuit of something grander and more inventive (hello, Ulysses).

So believing that some books are better than others does not make you a snob. Neither, I think, does excluding certain tested genres from your reading life, provided you’ve tried a few samplings before deciding it’s not for you. After all, that’s part of being an adult- experiencing some variety and then knowing yourself enough to tell what is and isn’t your jam.

What makes a reader a snob is making the leap from judging a book to judging its readers- when we go from “this book is bad according to x standards” to “this book is bad and therefore people who read it and enjoy it are inferior to me.”

We never know the depths of a person’s motivation for reading what they do, but I think we can safely say it’s a combination of stress level (and therefore tolerance-for-difficulty-or-work-required-to-read-this-book level), education, upbringing, taste, access to libraries/bookstores, socioeconomic status, and schedule, among other factors. To place value judgments on someone else’s reading is to place value judgements on all these things without knowing anything about them. For example, it might be easy for a wealthy, retired white male with plenty of leisure time and resources to read and enjoy the entire canon of Dickens, and to then judge a single parent who works three jobs and only has time to read one book a month for picking a plot-driven Western with super-accessible language. Easy, but wrong. Snobby. Elitist.

So what do you think, internet? Do you have a different definition of book snob? Let’s hear it!