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.
+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.
+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!