Brain Pickings

Nick Hornby on Your Cultural Snobbery

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What Céline Dion has to do with Jonathan Franzen and the construction of intellectual identity.

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider,” Francis Bacon advised in 1597. “One should read less and less, not more and more,” Henry Miller remarked as he reflected on a lifetime of reading in 1952.

Roughly half a millennium after Bacon and half a century after Miller, beloved critic and author Nick Hornby, whose Stuff I’ve Been Reading column in Believer never ceases to delight, captures our relationship with reading even more succinctly and unapologetically: “Read what you enjoy, not what bores you.” More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself (public library) collects Hornby’s Believer writings over the past two years, spanning everything from the devastating effects of the World Cup to Marshall McLuhan to the reading life as memento mori — a witty and illuminating blueprint to the habits and how-to’s of reading good books well.

In one particular essay, Hornby explores our distorted dichotomy of cultural taste by discussing Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:

Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are — especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us!

Hornby cites Wilson’s swift summation of cultural snobbery:

It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.

(Still, cue in William Gibson on taste as the building block of the “personal microculture” that defines us creatively and intellectually.)

More Baths Less Talking comes on the heels of three previous volumes of Hornby’s collected Believer columns, all excellent — The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. the Dirt (2006), and Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008).

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