In the City: Random Acts of Awareness , by Colette Brooks. W.W. Norton & Company, 111 pages, $23.95.
To be a critic is to be a snob, but to do the job right, the critic must stifle his snobbery, or at least disguise it. The reviewer’s noble aim is to evaluate books on the basis of criteria more stable and general than snobbery, which is always local and in flux. Writing about Snobbery and In the City , I may miss the mark, fall shy of my usual Olympian objectivity-but only because nothing brings out the snob like the topic of snobbery.
Like the critic, the snob is a keen-you might say compulsive-observer. The details he notes he then slots into a hierarchy; everything he sees and hears helps him gauge status-his own and others’. (The snob is pathetically dependent on his neighbors, both those he envies and those he disdains; every time he checks out the Joneses and establishes their rank-puts them in their place-he rises or falls by the same calculus.) In America today, as Joseph Epstein points out, these distinctions are not purely or even mostly about class. Social snobbery, especially since the terminal decline of WASP dominance in the second half of the 20th century, has been largely superseded by a profusion of lesser
interlocking registers of prestige: wealth, education, talent, beauty, celebrity, taste, politics, profession and so on. “The breakdown of the old systems,” Mr. Epstein writes at the very end of his book, “may have made snobbery simultaneously more amorphous and more pervasive than ever before.”
Notice how Mr. Epstein hedges: This is not an exact science. On the contrary, his book is anecdotal and relaxed; it’s almost a memoir in disguise, a litany of Joseph Epstein’s fine discriminations, generously illustrated with literary quotations. In a bibliographical note, he owns up to his unsystematic methodology: “a lifetime’s desultory reading and the attempt, from a fairly early age, to keep my eyes open to the world into which I was born.” That world is Chicago: Mr. Epstein grew up on the North Side, lives in Evanston and has taught English at Northwestern University for nearly three decades; from 1975 to 1997, he was the editor of The American Scholar . By his own account, he’s a snob (his first chapter is called “It Takes One to Know One”); more specifically, he’s an intellectual snob, and he believes with a snob’s tenacious complacency in his own “correct opinion.”
His opinions are for the most part sound, but they’re not far-reaching or challenging or even passionately expressed. Mr. Epstein is reasonable, occasionally amusing and faintly dull. His chapter on intellectual snobbery-the epicenter, you would think, of his enthusiasm-is as thin and uninspired as the rest. Here’s what you get: a brief warm-up; a suitably snobbish quote from V.S. Naipaul; a couple of paragraphs about snobbery in the publishing world; a paragraph about snobbery in academia; a quote from Jean Stafford about the Partisan Review crowd 50 years ago (“the greatest snobs in the world are bright New York literary Jews”); an autobiographical interlude
(“I cannot be certain when, precisely, I determined to become an intellectual”);
remarks on the insecurity of American intellectuals vis-à-vis their European counterparts; a three-paragraph dismissal of Susan Sontag (she’s suffered worse); and finally a half-hearted seven-paragraph slap at The New York Review of Books (“its reputation derived from its snobbishness as much as from its intellectual dazzle”). A long hard look at the NYRB could in fact teach us something about intellectual snobbery in America. Why not dig a little?
Mr. Epstein doesn’t like to break a sweat; he’d rather close out a topic with a sprinkling of apt remarks from Proust, Balzac, John O’Hara, Auden, Santayana. What’s the current scientific thinking on snobbery? Surely the evolutionary biologists have something interesting to say about the urge in Homo sapiens to establish a pecking order. It occurs to me that Joseph Epstein is best classified as a literary snob (it takes one to know one): He believes that all the answers to life’s questions can be found in literature. He has all the equipment he needs to write an indispensable book about snobbery; sadly, he’s written one that’s merely elegant and diverting.
There’s every kind of snob out there, including those who pride themselves on their superior powers of perception. Colette Brooks has written a book that’s an artfully arranged list of delicate aperçus , mostly about New York (though Ms. Brooks, who appears to be allergic to proper nouns, never actually names the city-a typically arch mannerism). She aims to capture the urban essence. Her perceptions, which she calls “random acts of awareness,” are in fact superior; woven into a narrative, or condensed in poems, they would do fine. But here, in the slender book she calls In the City , her isolated gems are presented serially, and the cumulative effect is preciousness-and that , I think you’ll agree, is not what New York is about.
Though she acknowledges the city-dweller’s “need for narrative,” Ms. Brooks fails to satisfy it. She prefers to report fragmentary remarks overheard on the subway or in the street. She deals in the “factoid” (which she defines as “a provocative but inert bit of information that can’t be linked, adroitly, to anything else”) and the coy mini-mystery: She’ll tell a story-about a cook, say, who “lent her name long ago to the most fearsome disease of her day”-and leave it up to the reader to guess the woman’s identity (Typhoid Mary). The act of reading In the City -that is, coping with factoids, incidental puzzles, snippets of conversation-is supposed to mirror urban living. As she puts it, “The city has always been half imagined.”
Some of her observations are delightful. After an anecdote about the inventor of the passenger elevator (Elisha Graves Otis-who goes unnamed, of course) and a tip of the hat to the city’s “dramatic vertical ascent,” she snobbishly dismisses other cities that “extend horizontally rather than upward.” She asks, “[I]sn’t zooming along a freeway simply falling sideways?” In a passage about the city’s frenetic commercial activity, she points out that this is merely the “visible spectrum of the urban economy. As a rule, the truly powerful concerns can’t be seen by the unaided eye.”
Ms. Brooks asks a rhetorical question: “[W]hat better way to live in the city than to surrender, unresisting, to its rhythms?” The trouble is, she hasn’t caught New York’s very own jangle or the scary hum of its raw power. She’s too polished, too polite, her prose too obviously worked at. What we get from In the City isn’t Gotham, it’s Colette Brooks.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer