Literary Snobbism
By Katie Peltier

What role does reading novels play in my life?
I can't honestly say that I'm a voracious consumer of novels. When I do have the time to read for leisure, I tend to pick up a book of poetry (e.e. cummings), or perhaps I'll flip through my Norton Anthology looking for short stories. During the semester these brief selections provide a guiltless pleasure; I'm almost afraid to indulge myself in the sustained reading of anything (particularly a novel) which hasn't been sanctioned by the stamp of "assignment." But if my appetite for novels is fairly well satisfied (and sometimes thoroughly squelched) by my classes, during breaks from school I tend to return to the novel-reading habits I practiced during middle and high school, which basically means that I read when my house is quiet enough to accommodate my low threshold for distractions.
My reading habits are largely similar to what they were before I went to college; yet my reading selections are decidedly different. In middle and early high school I read popular fiction, mostly Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton; by the end of my high-school years, I was choosing my reading material on the basis of recommendations by my friends or my high-school teachers. As a result, my reading selections were widely variegated, ranging from Ayn Rand to The Bridges of Madison County to Piers Anthony, and I honestly wasn't terribly discriminating. When I came to college, however, I suddenly realized how much amazing literature I hadn't read. Feeling terribly far behind my peers, I took it upon myself to try to read only "great" books, i.e., books which fell into some sort of canon (whatever that means these days). My reasoning for this method of choosing novels was bifold: the canon not only suggested artistic merit, but it also assured me that the little time I spent reading novels would augment my basic literary knowledge. Of course, the canon is tremendous and constantly expanding (and arguably obsolete); I chose novels rather unmethodically while working within some inclusive definition of "canonization," picking up books which I had heard about in some academic setting or other but had never gotten around to reading. Most often, these were twentieth-century novels or classic World Literature, although I do have a weakness for Dickens. This is basically the same method of selection I use presently; I try for varied content, although witty is good and inspiring is even better. Most of the novels I read fit this description, though occasionally a popular novel recommended by a friend slips in.
When I thought about putting this all down on paper, I realized that I must be a tremendous literary snob who is confined by the dictates of a traditional English major and who has forgotten how to read for leisure. And that's partially true. But I prefer to look at it more optimistically: my world-view may be myopically literary, but on the upside, I make very little distinction between my academic and personal interests. I am lucky to say that I love my major, and it's a basic part of who I am. Reading contemporary pop fiction may connect me with the greater community, but I can easily achieve the same effect (perhaps more readily) through other aspects of pop culture ("Joe Millionaire" included); so I read novels that make me feel connected to the historical community rather than the contemporary community and thereby assure me that there is perhaps some permanence in this volatile world. Reading the fiction of the past, whether "popular" or "strictly literary" (which is likely a distinction I shouldn't make), gives me a sense of continuity that I just can't find anywhere else, and perhaps increases my erudition in the process. So "literary snob," perhaps; but I hope my time's well spent.