What I’m reading: summer snobs edition
I’ve made a decision that I feel very good about: the theme of my summer fiction reading this year is going to be snobbery.
This dovetails with my interest in the ways that status and hierarchies limit political change and fuel backlashes. But snob fiction is the fun, lighthearted cousin: books that focus on the odd habits and eccentric preoccupations of people at the top of a particular status hierarchy, and the wild flailing that results when an outsider tries to gain entry — or an insider tries to escape.
I’m enjoying “Pineapple Street,” by Jenny Jackson, which is set among the ultrarich of Brooklyn Heights in New York City. It has a sort of reverse-Edith-Wharton feel — characters at the height of wealth and status who are uncomfortable with the social implications of that privilege. It pairs well with the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy by Kevin Kwan, a humorous take on the marriage plot that’s set among Singapore’s very old and very new moneyed elite.
And I didn’t really need an excuse to reread Plum Sykes’s socialite novels, “Bergdorf Blondes” and “The Debutante Divorcee,” which manage the difficult feat of being simultaneously warm and biting satire, but I’m happy to do it anyway. Sykes skewers New York high society via peripheral insiders — women who feel the need to economize, but whose idea of doing so is to buy their Chanel bags at sample sales instead of boutiques. They might roll their eyes at social doyennes deforesting the Southern Hemisphere in search of out-of-season pear blossoms to complete their party décor, but they’re still going to the parties anyway.
(I haven’t read Sykes’s 2017 mystery “Party Girls Die in Pearls” yet, but the jacket copy promises “Clueless meets Agatha Christie,” a blurb clearly designed in a lab to get me to click “purchase now.”)
And because I can’t quite resist getting analytical about all this, I’ve also picked up “Status and Culture,” by W. David Marx, which dissects the rules of why money can’t buy class, except when sometimes it can. The book is admirable in its breadth, and I appreciate that it takes even ‘low’ culture seriously as a force that brings meaning and conflict to people’s lives. But I came away thinking that he had set himself an impossible task. To be truly effective, the markers of status must be at least somewhat inexplicable, because as soon as a particular status can be pinned down, outsiders can copy it, which instantly destroys its potency. That means that any book that explains the rules of those markers will, on some level, render its own analysis obsolete.
It also seemed like a good idea to pick up “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Walter Benjamin. A friend told me yesterday that she had returned to it while writing an article about artificial intelligence. I wonder what Benjamin would have made of ChatGPT?
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
Susana, a reader in Puerto Rico, recommends “Walk the Blue Fields” by Claire Keegan:
She writes beautiful prose, almost a poem. She takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Her capacity for transforming the daily life into something beautiful is outstanding.
What are you reading?
Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!
I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) about snobs or snobbery! The more fun, the better, but I’ll accept dark tales of the elite if you tell me why I should.
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