Literary Snobbery


Okay. I’m coming clean. I’ve become a literary snob. It’s getting in the way of my enjoyment of Lalita Tademy’s family history saga Cane River, but that’s something I’ll probably explain in more detail once I finish and review the book.

I used to read romance novels. I really did. I’m not sure I can read another one. It isn’t that they aren’t fun. They are. But if we’re truly honest, we’ll admit to ourselves that they’re literary junk food. I mean, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to have Nora Roberts’ career. I’m not an idiot. But I wonder if she won’t be as forgotten as her forbears — Barbara Cartland is slipping away into the mists, the old gal.

Why have I become a literary snob? Well, I think it is due in part to, a website which tracks book discussion in weblogs as well as giving bloggers a way to identify which books they are reading for their readers. If you scroll down a bit and look at the sidebar on the right, you’ll see I’m currently reading the aforementioned Cane River and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Why am I reading this? I mean, the only people who read this book are those hapless souls forced prodded and cajoled into reading by sadistic well-meaning English teachers? Nah. I guess not. I guess it started with The Poisonwood Bible, which I reviewed not long ago. I know I read Heart of Darkness in college — British Literature from 1700 to the Present (a sophomore lit. course). I strolled to the classroom next door and asked Randal if he had read The Poisonwood Bible. He had not. So I recommended it enthusiastically. Then I asked him if he teaches Heart of Darkness. He said, yes, he did. I mentioned I thought the books were similar. He reminded me that Heart of Darkness is not merely a tale about the horrors of colonialism, but the true evil of mankind laid bare. And I said something else, and Randal disagreed. I started feeling outgunned, because it had been around 14 years since I read the book, and I didn’t remember details like he did. I decided I’d better read it again. I remembered hating it 14 years ago. I have had difficulty putting it down since I borrowed from Randal this morning. Man. How could I have hated this book?

I guess it boils down to this: I am 33. I’m not 19. In the last five years or so, with so many works of literature under my belt, my analysis skills seem to be much sharper. Age and maturity have taught me what to pull out of a book. It’s funny, because when I was 25, I was having a conversation with a classmate (I was a senior in college after quitting for three years when Sarah was born, then going back). This classmate was 30. I remarked at some point upon how well-read he was. He said, in what I thought at the time was a very exasperated tone, “I’m also a lot older than you.” Well, “a lot” is stretching things. But there is definitely something about being over 30 that makes me look at reading and books differently. I guess not everyone feels this way. My mom is in her 50s and happily reading mysteries. She inhales books. I owe my love of reading to her example.

I am thinking as I write, trying to put my finger on what’s different. I came to the conclusion that I have become a literary snob for a few reasons: 1) I want to learn things only Literature with a capital L can teach me; 2) I have had to read so many books — some classics — that I hadn’t yet read in preparation to teach them; and 3) I’ve come to the conclusion that life is too short to waste on bad writing. There are some really good books out there.

I remarked to Steve the other day, in reference to The Poisonwood Bible, that it is funny how inocuous books seem: a pretty jacket, a catchy title — you little suspect that reading the pages might change your life.

I have been scouring Wikipedia’s articles about the Congo. I even added references to the Further Reading section of this article about the History of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Let me underscore, capitalize, and repeat to anyone who has ever known me: I have never, ever wanted to go to Africa. I just had no interest. In fact, sometimes it bothered me that I had no interest in Africa. But since I read The Poisonwood Bible, I am fascinated by this country formerly known as Zaire. I look for it on globes and maps when I am out — ah, yes, that one is recent because it’s not labeled Zaire except in parentheses under the restored if somewhat altered title THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO to distinguish it from the Republic of the Congo. The former was colonized by Belgium and known then as “the Belgian Congo” and the latter colonized by the French and known as “the French Congo.”

I stand so my face is about three inches from the map so I can read all the tiny print, and I trace my finger down the Congo River, trying to figure out where Kingsolver’s village of Kilanga might be. Just like Charlie Marlow, who recalls looking at “blank” spaces on the map:

But there was one yet — the biggest — the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after.

True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It has ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery — a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window it fascinated me as a snake would a bird — a silly little bird.

Yes, I thought when I read that, I know what you mean, Marlow. Me too. When I was a girl, Zaire was a blank space on a map, far away, with funny-sounding cities. Then when I was older, it was the home of poverty, children with swollen bellies, and the most horrible pestilences known to man — AIDS and Ebola. Now when I look at the map, I see something more familiar. I think of the destruction wrought there in the name of diamonds and ivory as well as well-meaning missionaries and doctors. It’s real, and I can almost smell it. I am scared to go, but I almost want to see it, too.

I guess that’s the sort of place literary snobbery can take you.


2 thoughts on “Literary Snobbery

  1. My goal is to read all the Pulitzer Prize novels. I just started trying. I'm reading James Agee's A Death In the Family right now. I chose him first because it's a tale about Knoxville, where I lived until last summer.

  2. I also used to read romance novels. I'm not sure what changed that, except to say Hemingway and a few "proddings" from some very helpful high school and college professors. I try not to be too "snobby" towards those who do read them, but I need something more substantial in my reading and I would disagree that it's an age thing per se – I think it's just something you eventually grow into, regardless of how old you are – something that is affected by your surroundings and the people you are able to discuss your reading with. My Mom (who is 45) is finally reading the Da Vinci Code and other more thought-provoking novels after being a serious (I mean serious) romance novel addict. She still spends an ungodly amount of money on those predictable little love stories, but at least we can have a good discussion on books together now and again.

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