The Fashion Magpie Lowbrow Books

Lowbrow.

When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my friends was talking about Vanity Fair at the lunch table.

“I just can’t wait for it to come in the mail every month,” she said, picking at her taco salad.  (Taco salad days were good cafeteria days at Visitation.)

“Me too,” chimed in another friend — one I deeply respected for her intellectual agility.  I nodded uncomfortably, though I’d never read the magazine myself.  They looked at me expectantly.

“I don’t subscribe to it,” I said, deftly avoiding the topic of whether I read it or not.  Then I re-directed:  “I only subscribe to InStyle and Lucky.”

“Ugh — those are so lowbrow,” said my friend, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

Even now, nearly two decades later, I color at the memory of this exchange — it’s almost as uncomfortable for me as the time I tried to work “like dolls on a shelf” into an academic paper.  And I can’t fault my friend.  She was smart, and had opinions, and Lord knows I’ve been guilty of intellectual snobbery from time to time.  (*That time, at a cocktail party, when I answered someone’s tepid question as to what I was up to, by replying, dead-pan and without a trace of self-awareness: “I’ve been working on my dissertation on epistemology and intertextuality in Pound’s The Cantos.”  I didn’t even say Ezra Pound.  Just Pound, as if he should have known.  I mean, I wasn’t lying — that is, in fact, what I was writing about — but still, there was no need to use argot in such a context, and it was flagrantly unkind.  That said, there’s a small part of me that burns with pride over the memory, as the guy asking the question was a notable snob himself.)

But for a teen, trying desperately to fashion herself as part of the pack — and my pack was a smart pack — the lowbrow comment was brutal.  I felt I’d revealed myself as an imposter.  I would go on to graduate with the highest GPA in my high school class, but I always felt as though the designation was accidental, or unfair — these other girls in my class were so much smarter, better-read, more literate and opinionated than I was.  They had real perspectives on the news, and read op-ed columns and Vanity Fair, and one of them was tearing through Thomas Merton for fun.  (I was more likely to be reading Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie in my spare time, just like the chic pea above!  Not bad reading, but not substantive reading, either.) I was just exceedingly disciplined and could memorize facts easily — in fact, I enjoyed it.  I remember taking a gut class in European History my second year of college that was laughably easy for me because the professor was old school and tended to examine us based on rote memorization of the chronologies of battles and the successions of rulers and the ins and outs of various treaties.  Committing those details to memory was borderline fun for me (oh hey, inner nerd, good to see you) — organizing them all in timelines, creating flashcards, quizzing myself.  When I aced a pop quiz towards the end of the first quarter, he sent me an email that read: “Ms. Nurmi: I was bowled over by your answers to the quiz.  Excellent.”   Bowled over!  I’d never heard that phrase in common conversation, and I picked it up and pressed it to my cheek.  Even still, I knew the truth: I wasn’t smart, I was just diligent.

These many years later, I have shed those insecurities.  I consider myself intelligent and I understand that there are different flavors of intellect, too.  More importantly (or perhaps this is a corollary?), I see myself as somebody.

But I also have a different perspective on the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, and I wish to God I could go back in time and tell anxious, tenth-grade me all the right things to say on the topic.  Which would be this: some of the smartest people I know (including my brother) enjoy watching horrible TV and B-grade movies (think Nick Cage).  And one of the most brilliant people I know has admitted that The Royal We is one of her absolute favorite books.  (I agree.)  And one of today’s most brilliant authors and social commentators (Roxane Gay, who made my list of 10 books that changed my life) routinely reads and dissects pop lit and reality TV, from 50 Shades of Gray to The Bachelor.  The point being: you can have a meaningful conversation about anything.  The text itself says nothing about the reader — it doesn’t implicate or incriminate.  If anything, someone’s meaningful reaction to something I’ve written off as vapid or “lowbrow” can make me second guess my own analytical abilities.  Seriously: I recently shared one reader’s thoughtful reaction to The Last Mrs. Parrish (see hall of fame comment no. 1) and it has since shaped my thinking about the concept of “rape culture.”  (There’s also the point that all those years of reading “lowbrow” fashion magazines led me to start this blog, which has since evolved into something entirely different from its fashion collage beginnings.  And I didn’t take my cues from the highbrow fashion glossies, either — I was always drawn at that age to outlets that featured wearable, attainable clothes: pieces from Gap that could possibly make their way into my closet.  But that’s neither here nor there.)  I also believe that — with the notable exception of my father — no one can subsist on Didion and LaCan alone.  We mortals need escape, fantasy, easy reading.

For these reasons, I am proudly sharing that I am reading my first young adult book, The Selection, after Grace suggested it on her new podcast and described it as “the Bachelor for teenagers in a dystopian future.”  Um, juicy.  I even talked my best friend and my cousin into reading it alongside me (though they typically consume “highbrow” fare) so that we could have a wine-fueled tete-a-tete once complete.  It’s probably written at a seventh grade reading level, but there’s a lot happening in it that has made me stop and think — one of them being that the protagonist, at least in the early portion of the book, romanticizes her relationship with her boyfriend (as any teen would) and specifically talks about how much she longs to cook and care for her boyfriend, fashioning herself as the nurturing caregiver in their relationship.  There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself (I feel I aspire to fill a similar role in my relationship with Mr. Magpie), but it read like a 1950s-era girlhood journal and it made me wonder about how much has actually changed in terms of gender dynamics in the home over the past seventy years–or at least in terms of our lionization of certain “feminine” versus “masculine” responsibilities and spheres of influence.  (And, it’s possible that the book eventually overturns this aspiration; I’m only half way through.)  And when I compare the vision of femininity laid out in this tween book to the extremely progressive gender politics in the deft, wondrous 1990s show Roseanne that I raved about not so long ago — a show that is top of mind thanks to the reboot of the series that just launched a week ago and oh my God, it is good, and I’ll write more about that soon — and all of this leads me to think: so who cares about highbrow or lowbrow when a lot of serious and important social conversations are spooling out from them?

I also wonder whether the authors and editors of these YA books feel at all beholden to a different set of ethics when contemplating the fact that their wildly popular books will have a huge impression on a very impressionable demographic…?

More to come soon,  but for now, I am a proud, card-carrying member of the lowbrow elite.

Post-Script.

+Ordering a few of these to stow brown sugar, rice, and other excess flours and baking products.  I already keep flour and sugar in these OXO pop canisters, which look pretty and stack nicely, but am frankly underwhelmed by them.  I don’t think the seal is strong enough and I worry that stowing something like brown sugar in there would let all the moisture out.

+I mentioned my inner-geek above, but…I have had this in my cart for a week and I think I need it.  Why?  Don’t ask.  Slash, I *need* it for labeling my spices, the drawers of my medicine cabinet caddy (I have two of these to stow medicine, overflow cosmetics, etc), and aforementioned jars.

+This would be so cute for the fourth of July (and it’s on sale!)

+Next up on my ongoing search for the perfect undereye concealer.  I LOVE this brand’s Living Luminizer, so I’m going to give it a shot!

+Meanwhile, for those of us in this never-ending winter, how about this last-minute addition to your cold weather wardrobe (under $20!)

+I mean, I both laughed and died when I saw these.  How ridiculous…and adorable.

+I’m sure you were sitting at the edge of your seat on this topic, but I finally invested in a set of tupperware: these, which get excellent reviews.

+This dress is absolutely precious.  Love those statement sleeves.

+RRR jammies on sale!

+Love this floral print dress.  Would be so flattering on someone with long, athletic legs!

P.S.  Literary life raft.

P.P.S.  I enjoyed stirring the pot with this post…read the comments for some epic food for thought!

25 Comments

  1. Ooh, The Selection series…so much to unpack there. I read the entire series while bedridden with a horrid flu, and I have to say while my appreciation for America as a protagonist never really reached the full-fledged stage, the novels themselves do get much more interesting as you go on. Stick with it!

    I have a healthy appreciation for the YA genre and love to pop back and forth among the current critical darlings (is EVERYONE reading “Little Fires Everywhere” and “The Female Persuasion,” or is it just me?), old/beloved classics, and “lighter fare,” YA included. One of my favorite voices in the YA world today is Emery Lord – I think she deftly avoids a lot of the pitfalls other YA authors fall into, and her way with words/clear love of writing beautifully really resonates with me.

    Happy reading, and enjoy your lowbrow pleasures – I think it just makes the view from on high that much more enjoyable in the end!

    1. Thank you — you’re right; a lot to unpack in The Selection. I’ll need to check out Emery Lord (share’s a version of my daughter’s namesake, too!) if I choose to continue with the genre (currently on the fence — it’s easy reading but I haven’t taken to it as quickly as I thought I might). xx

  2. Many thoughts here! Years ago I read Highbrow/Lowbrow and it really shifted my thinking. The discussion of Shakespeare in particular — one of my classmates likened it to the WWE of the 17th century and while that might not be exactly right, it’s not totally far off. Those plays were entertainment for the masses! They really only seem removed and fussy to us now because the language has changed so much. And people are quick to dismiss modern interpretations, but making those stories more accessible is a good thing!

    Roxanne Gay was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts this week (Bitch Sesh, a podcast devoted to the decidedly lowbrow Real Housewives franchises) and it was FANTASTIC! So delightful and funny and enjoyable. It gave me an idea for a podcast called Smart People Talk About Garbage TV and I am even more convinced there is an audience for it.

    One of the things that I loved about The Mindy Project was that Mindy Lahiri was a smart, hardworking girl with a serious job (badass ObGyn) who was not at all ashamed to love pop music, romantic comedies, clothing, makeup, etc. All of her hobbies could be considered “frivolous” and her taste was at times questionable, but she totally owned it.

    I feel like there’s more to say (do men worry about this as much? I don’t think so. They get to have football AND fantasy football for entertainment. A whole hobby based on sitting around playing make believe!), but will definitely be noodling this a bit this week…

    1. My eyes literally popped out of my head when you mentioned a podcast (clapping emoji hands) with Roxane Gay (clapping emoji hands) about Real Housewives (clapping emoji hands). I am literally salivating with excitement for my next walk with my dog! Downloaded it and I’m set. Cannot wait!!!

      I seriously applaud Roxane for making it something of a mission of hers to focus on the texts that surround us and are consumed en masse and what they mean about our culture. I am obsessed with her, and I feel sometimes like I can barely keep up with her sharp intellect!

      Agree on Mindy — I love her show and I loved her books, too. She plays against so many stereotypes, and at the same time, embraces others — and calls attention while doing so. I find her unabashed pursuit of material success particularly interesting — more of a “masculine” trait to begin with and something that is often dubbed “greedy” or “aggressive” in women, but that she owns without batting an eyelash.

      And, such an interesting point on the gender context in all of this; someone else brought it up below, too!

  3. “You can have a meaningful conversation about anything.” — this is so, so true and yet it didn’t occur to me until quite recently. Sometimes, my husband and I will be talking about whether to get a magic merlin suit for our little bald man or keep on stuffing him in this ridiculous peanut-shaped sack thing , or whether we can get away with cosleeping on our upcoming trip to California or or or any of the many logistics a baby entails, and I’ll think, oof, if my twenty-eight year-old self could hear us now… but then again, what did she know? These conversations about logistics are also conversations about new lives, and about love.
    This post brings to mind something my father said recently, about beer: that when you’re young, you drink the cheap stuff because that’s what you can afford, and when you’re old, you drink it because it’s what you like, dammit.
    Also, there’s no way KUWTK is more lowbrow than football (with the exception of Friday Night Lights, swoooon) — yet we mock ourselves for watching the former while football fans trumpet their love of the latter. No more, I say!

    1. “These conversations about logistics are also conversations about new lives, and about love.” So very true. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about my husband, and about my friends, too, in the minutiae of parenting conversations — some of the assumptions I unthinkingly hold suddenly exposing themselves.

      Interesting point on the gender context for this conversation, too — I had not thought of that! It reminds me that one time we were on a ski trip just after I’d graduated from college with about twenty people (now something of a nightmare to think about) and one of the guys put on a video of “extreme heli-skiing” set to a heavy metal soundtrack and he watched it in the center of the living room, dazed, saying things like, “Gnarly” and “Aw man!” We all kind of looked at each other like, “What the hell is going on here?”

  4. I know that this was more a by-product of your post and not the gist, but I, too, just began “The Selection” – per Grace’s rec – for a bit of fun. I have had the same… misgivings? as you about the protagonist’s romantic fantasies. I’m a middle school English teacher, so I read quite a bit of YA and may be hyper-sensitive to the cultural/gender norms they either encourage or seek to question/dismantle. I wonder if the novel will continue along the same trope, or if there will be a shift in America’s understanding of romantic relationships and the roles people play within them. The outcome will likely shape how and when I recommend it to certain readers. (But boy, is it fun to read!)

    I came across your blog via Mackenzie, and I have been greedily lapping up all of your posts and stories. I love this kind of long-form noodling over various topics, teasing out what you think or what you might think about a subject (or, as Didion said, to see more clearly the images that shimmer around the edges). I’m also pregnant, so your past posts on registries, parenting, pregnancy, etc. have been wonderful fodder for me as I anxiously await my baby girl’s birth. Thank you for sharing your writing with us.

    1. Hi Anne! Yes, yes to your comments on The Selection. I’m now 2/3 of the way done and continue to not only cringe at her romantic fantasies, but at some of her character traits more generally. I mean, what’s with all the swooning and fainting and that time she worries that her delicate ankles will give out but “no no, it’s OK, Maxon will catch me if I fall”? Blech. Did I black out and find myself in the 14th century? At the same time, I appreciate that America has been a “transgressor” since the start of the book — she “breaks rules” in pursuit of love and family, negotiates a way for her to avoid being pursued in exchange for money, etc. A lot to unpack here…

      Thanks, also, for the kind words about the blog! So glad you’ve found me and that you’re here, engaging with me, in these comments. And, an early CONGRATS! You’ll have to let me know if you’re looking for anything in particular for the baby!!! xoxo

  5. I love this post. Coming from somewhere in the middle of the millennial generation, I’ve noticed that many of my peers are treating the consumption of “lowbrow” content as a badge of honor. I think everyone does it now, and its not so much of a guilty pleasure (which I think adults used to be embarrassed about) as it is just a thing that you read or watch.

    That said, there have been multiple times in my life where people have reacted just the same way your high school friends did. “Oh you didn’t read the rest of The Odyssey for fun over spring break? Good for you.” I am so glad that there is a community of women that embrace the high and the low!

    By the way, I found a lovely bag on Amazon that reminded me of the Staud netting bags! Would look lovely with all of the gorgeous summer dresses you’ve been posting, and I’m ordering it ASAP

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074T3RRD4/ref=sspa_dk_detail_4psc=1&pd_rd_i=B074T3RRD4&pd_rd_wg=uG1VU&pd_rd_r=2SN3RJ7AW755JF0Q8NXC&pd_rd_w=nnJgI

    1. That’s a super interesting point about generational rifts on this topic — my dad just.does.not.understand reality tv, although he will admit he enjoys other “lightweight” pastimes like card games and puzzles and that sort of thing. Are reality TV shows and YA adults like bridge for the millennial set??

      What a great Amazon find! Love when I’m able to get the look for less!!! Thanks for sending. xoxo

  6. I think balance is key, and it sounds like it is something we all struggle to find in our lives. When I was going through a particularly stressful time with work, personal stuff, etc. I realized I was so focused on going at all cylinders all the time (there was always something to be done with work, wedding planning, friends, family) that I lost my balance and became totally unhinged. I found that “checking out” through an easy read or some reality tv was a very necessary part of my daily routine. The mindlessness of these things, and easy laugh from some ridiculous antic of a Real Housewife, works wonders for the soul. I also find that after a more challenging read I need to re-set with some fluffier, lighter reading. I’m currently reading Class Mom by Laurie Gelman, it’s definitely in the latter category and has made me smile a few times.

    To add to the great concealer debate, I just discovered the NARS matte concealer through my sister and am obsessed. A dab of it works wonders on the under-eyes.
    https://shop.nordstrom.com/s/nars-soft-matte-concealer/4566452?top=72&brand=1696

    1. Hi Jen! I like the way you put that — lighter fare as a “re-set” button. I know exactly what you mean. If you’re walking around like Eeyore wearing the weight of the world on your shoulders after watching a disturbing documentary or reading a heavy book, something light can restore balance.

      Oooooh, that concealer! I’m a huge sucker for strong reviews, and that one has nearly 70 five star reviews…!

      xx

  7. Ok I need to very strongly interject against RMS concealer!!!!!! It is as bad for (my) undereyes as the LL is good for (my) cheeks. Creases incorrigibly even, no coverage.

  8. Oh my gosh I love and relate to this SO MUCH. All my life I’ve been very book smart, did well in school + at my career but also just enjoyed the lowbrow stuff. I think this is true of a lot of women – we’re multifaceted and all that studiousness needs an outlet/break!

    My similar moment of feeling inferior was when I was talking to my old boss and some coworkers about mascara and eyelash extensions (something I feel v. passionate about, along with more serious things too of course). They thanked me for the advice and I said “Oh I could talk about lashes all day long.” My boss rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of a (very condescending) “Of course you can.” I STILL think about that moment in conversations today. Am I talking too much about beauty products? Do people think I’m dumb? And so on and so forth. It can be crippling!

    Ugh. The Fug Girls tweeted something about this recently and I forget the exact wording but the essence was, you can still care about fashion + pop culture alongside the more serious stuff like politics and current events. It isn’t mutually exclusive.

    FWIW I was also a Lucky and InStyle girl and I always say that Lucky is what inspired me to read my blog!

    Thanks for sharing, I really related to this.. and thank you for sharing our podcast which is, decidedly very lowbrow but we are HERE FOR THAT. YA novels, beauty products, and all of the frivolous things. With all of the newsy political podcasts we all listen to, we hope to be a fun little break in our listeners’ days.

    Now please get back to reading The Selection so that we can discuss! xo

    1. Ick, what a nasty thing for someone to have said! So cutting and condescending! I feel you, and have had similar moments of self-doubt in my own writings. (I’m posting something tomorrow about my favorite hair products…not exactly Macarthur Genius material.) But, as you point out, talking about the lighter things in life doesn’t mean you can’t be smart, too. “They’re not mutually exclusive.” In fact, come to think of it, I tend to respect people who approach all things in life with the same level of thought and scrutiny — whether it’s an op ed in the NYTimes or a new mascara. It suggests that you lead a discerning life!

      Anyway, thanks for planting the seed that eventually became this post and this line of inquiry. Looking forward to tuning in to all things lowbrow with you! xx

  9. AMEN to this — I found myself nodding along with so much of what you wrote here. I, too, was a diligent student who enjoyed the nerdier aspects of academia, and I truly miss being in that world (I keep fantasizing about auditing classes once I have more time on my hands, i.e. once I’m retired!) I can relate to Stephanie’s comment below about the difficulty of transferring academic skills into a job I’ll love.

    All of that said, I have also always nourished a love for certain “lowbrow” forms of media (certainly books, hello The Royal We!) and while I’m not a huge TV watcher, I certainly don’t fault my intelligent friends for being into The Bachelor, KUWTK, etc. I love your point about Roxane Gay as well. I was recently reading the cover of The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, which features a prominent blurb from Gay, and I thought, “If she endorses it, it must be worth it!”

    I also always save the “lowbrow-brilliant” quadrant of New York magazine’s Approval Matrix for last, because it’s my favorite section … haha!

    It’s so great and interesting that you’re reading your first YA book. It’s such a cherished genre for many of the readers I most respect, and I haven’t ever read anything in it myself! I do have a copy of Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, as well as Richard Lawson’s All We Can Do Is Wait — can’t decide which one will be my first plunge into the genre. And to bring things full circle, Richard Lawson is Vanity Fair’s film critic — so how’s that for highbrow/lowbrow?! 🙂

    1. Hi! Yes, totally — seeing Roxane endorse anything (or mention anything, really) is enough to send me running to the book store. (Or, to Amazon Prime.) That’s been on my list, too.

      Such a funny point about Richard Lawson — full circle indeed! xoxo

  10. …And all the good students said amen! I totally get feeling diligent but not smart. I was a high school valedictorian and graduated summa cum laude from college, but feel pretty *meh* about my career. I’ve been at home with my mini full time since she was born in August and occasionally think about what’s next career wise. I keep feeling like I excelled much more as a student than I did in my career, so how do I transfer all that (doing all the reading, not skipping class, memorization skills, etc) into a job I’ll actually enjoy??? Nothing comes to mind so I am putting it off as long as possible 🙂

    Also, I have subscribed to InStyle for many years, and just finishing listening to And Then There Were None on Hoopla. We watched the BBC miniseries version recently, have you seen it? I got it because I loved Aidan Turner in Poldark, but it was super creepy! I had to go back and re-read the book to see if it was as creepy (spoiler alert: it was not) since that doesn’t seem like Agatha’s style. Turns out they took a few liberties with the storyline 😉 But side note…Hoopla is a great way to get your reading in during the day with a baby, while you are feeding, or washing a million dishes/bottles, or watching her roll around the living room!

    1. Hi Stephanie — I completely relate to your sentiment. I remember being in a job awhile back and thinking, “And…this is it? This is what my powerhouse academic career got me? Blah. What were all those years of hard work for?” I do think that there are seasons of life where work is work, and you find intellectual outlets and energy elsewhere, whether it’s through a book club, a class at an art museum, a course of self-study. Mr. Magpie often goes down rabbit holes like this when it comes to cooking projects — he’ll read dozens of books on how to make the best yeast starter and then undertake it himself, and I can see how intellectually curious and satisfied he is. And then, of course, there are seasons where your work keeps you super engaged and you have little time for anything else. I think it’s all part of life. But a big misconception, I think, is that work always needs to be this massive, fulfilling part of your life — I noticed that a lot of my younger staff members came to work with that expectation in particular. I remember an intern telling me, honestly, that she hated the routine parts of her job and if she could pass that off to someone else, she’d be much happier. Well, yes. We all would! I’m rambling a bit here, but I hope you get my drift — that I have felt similarly to you at various points in my career and I slowly realized that sometimes that’s OK, and that your extracurriculars can provide the substance for a time. (Is that complacent?!)

      Thanks also for the Hoopla suggestion — had not heard of that! (Do I live under a rock?!)

      xoxo

    2. I should note that Hoopla is not groundbreaking…it’s just free! You can rent audiobooks from your library, instead of paying for audible or similar.

  11. Yes! I have a limited number of lowbrow “intrigues” (heavily concentrated in a certain breed of reality TV), and for years my family and friends alternated between playful mocking and expressing their utter disbelief that someone who on the surface is so “serious” (a euphemism for intellectual/academic/professional snob, I’m sure) can sink to such levels. Admittedly, I was perplexed myself and started to think about the topic at length. I agree with you—it’s so much more than escapism, how you digest these pursuits and what they do to balance your worldview, good, bad, or ugly, shouldn’t be undercut. I am a firm believer that range is necessary, it’s what keeps us on our toes!

    1. “Admittedly, I was perplexed myself” < < yes! I recall going through multiple rounds of self-doubt and confusion when I'd be dialed in to episode three-in-a-row of Kardashians or Real Housewives of Wherever. As you put it, "range is necessary," and this kind of programming elicits its own kind of cognitive dissonance: "yuck, I don't like that!...why?"I also found this write-up on why smart women like The Bachelor interesting and pertinent: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/smart-women-watch-the-bachelor-guilty-pleasure-central_n_7292198.html

      xoxo

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