Becoming a book snob

Boy reading. Since writing and librarianship take up a good chunk of my time, and since reading is an integral part of improving my skills in both fields, I have become much choosier with what I read. In the past six months, I haven’t read a single novel that either a.) did not get a starred review in Library Journal or Publisher’s Weekly ; b.) did not win an award or recognition, such as the Printz Prize, the National Book Award, or a spot on one of YALSA’s (the Young Adult Library Services Association) recommended lists; c.) was not recommended to me by a trusted friend or colleague; or d.) some combination of the above. Consequently, I haven’t read a book that I didn’t like in a long time.

I’ve also been exposed to a lot of excellent writing. I try to learn at least one thing from every book I read that I can apply to my own writing, whether that’s pacing, plotting, or character development. But as awesome as this is, it comes with a down side: I’m becoming a book snob.

I’m not worried that I’ll run out of good books to read. My to-read list is just as long and robust as ever (and perhaps even longer than it was before I started working full-time as a librarian). But I am worried that my expectations may be getting too high — that in my quest for great books, I’m missing out on a lot of good ones. The other day I picked up the last book in a series I’d been waiting for over a year to read. I loved the first two books, and proudly recommend the series to everyone interested in that genre. And so far, I think the book is good, even great; but it’s not the amazing novel that I expected.

I’m sure that time has made me build up just how good the first two books really were in my head. When I went back and re-read the first pages of that first book, I still thought they were good. But they weren’t as good as I remembered.

Which leads me to wonder: am I ruining my palette for reading material? Am I becoming the literary equivalent of the gourmet connoisseur who can no longer tolerate store-brand foods? And if so, is that a bad thing? As I said, I’m not worried about running out of great reading material. But I also don’t want to be that person at the party who refuses to read the latest commercial fiction novel simply because the writing isn’t good enough.

In Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Isola declares that “reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.” Do you think this is true? And if so, do you think it’s a bad thing? How have you battled your own bouts of book snobbery?

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3 thoughts on “Becoming a book snob

  1. rbrothers

    I’ve been thinking about this as well. I have yet to draw a final conclusion, but here’s what I have so far:

    For me, the mark of great writing is intentionality. If I decide to devote time and energy to reading a story, I’m telling the author, “I trust that you’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing this story.” It’s a contract, in a way. If the research is shoddy, the plot has enormous holes, the characters behave erratically, or the phrasing is clumsy, then that contract has been broken, and I have no responsibility to devote further time and energy to that story. In fact, you could argue that I have a responsibility to *stop* reading those stories after giving them a fair chance to prove themselves, because that lets me devote more time to the stories that are told with great care and intentionality.

    (Granted, I think it’s perfectly fine to prioritize something over this standard — for example, the party you mentioned. In that case, I’m not reading for instruction or delight; I’m reading to stock my arsenal of conversation topics. I think of it as more of a social or professional duty, like keeping up on the news.)

    I don’t consciously pit books against one another, saying, “Book B is not as engaging as Book A; therefore, I will give up on Book B.” I try to gauge each book on its own merit. The inverse, I think, is the real hallmark of a literary snob — approaching a book with expectations, challenging it to live up to Book A.

    Reply
    1. Liz Osisek Post author

      I agree, I think it’s important to judge books on their own merit, rather than comparing them to others. Different books can be engaging in different ways. I will sometimes find myself comparing books of the same genre or with similar stories; for example, thinking, “Book A had a subplot like this that was handled more subtly than Book B.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Book B, or can’t appreciate the subplot in both books.

      While I think intentionality can be important, I think it’s hard (if not impossible) to judge an author’s intentions with a book. I doubt anyone sets out to write a book that’s full of plot holes. I’m not saying I would finish a poorly-written book because I thought the author meant well when they wrote it, but I think it’s hard to tell how much time/effort was put into a book unless you’re the writer. So when I’m judging a book, I try to focus on the merit of the book itself, rather than what the author may have intended it to be.

      Reply

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