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Marianne Taylor

The Book of Cool: What is It? Who Decides It? And Why Do We Care So Much?

(Running Press; US: Jun 2009)

Though the back cover purports that The Book of Cool is a work of sociology, do not come to it looking for a weighty analysis of the concept and an investigation into the role it plays in a consumer economy and its requisite ideology. It is not akin to Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, or Paul Fussell’s Class, let alone something more recondite, like Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental study of cultural capital in France. Do not come expecting an extrapolation of what makes for “cool” and what sort of aesthetic posturing it entails in the manner of Susan Sontag’s essay on camp. Do not even pick it up thinking it will be a sardonic but ultimately flattering account of youth culture in the tradition of The Hipster Handbook or The Metrosexual Guide to Style.


Instead, short-story writer Marianne Taylor has produced in The Book of Cool a catalog of trends that already seems dated, coupled with a compendium of whimsical diversions that fall somewhere between “Which Spice Girl Are You?”-style Facebook quizzes and rejected Entertainment Weekly sidebar pitches. (Examples: “Dude, What Happened to Your Hair”, an illustrated guide to hipster hairdos; and “Geek and Emo: True and False”, a quiz to teach readers the difference between the two.)


Though Taylor at times defines cool as the art of not trying too hard, her prose frequently strains to be funny, reveling in a chatty superficiality that rarely troubles readers with anything resembling an argument. In general, Taylor’s writing is unflaggingly good-natured, but that doesn’t seem to suit the subject matter, which trades in stereotypes and casual cruelty. Cool lends itself better to sarcasm and snark, since it is mainly a way of signifying status, of demarcating barriers, of identifying and excluding the uncool—all inherently mean procedures. The social stakes involved with cool helps explains the palpable sense of desperation that clings to the concept wherever it crops up and which Taylor’s prose fails to entirely dispel. In fact, she can blithely state truisms like “History has forever deemed losers according to race, economic class, and the political bias of the times” without a moment’s pause to consider the way cool is used to reinforce such discrimination.


The book is divided into four parts, inexplicably marked by colored tabs in the margin as if it were a reference manual. Perhaps the publishers and designers were afraid one might need quick access to that section on the “history of cool” as opposed to the “science of cool” and wouldn’t have a moment to spare for the table of contents. In the history section, Taylor offers a smorgasbord of possible antecedents for modern cool: outlaws, transcendentalists, and Fourierists from the 19th century; and many of the usual jazz, beat generation, and 1960s counterculture suspects from the 20th century. But the chapter is guided not by a thesis about cool’s essence, but rather brute chronology, as Taylor plods through the decades, listing more or less at random objects or concepts that have struck people then or, just as often, now as cool: thus we leap from Brook Farm to Miles Davis to dashikis, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, sleeve tattoos, and leather pants.


Along the way, any number of transient cool/uncool memes are given a subhed and a sentence or two to keep the chapter moving quickly. No underlying motif links all these different things together; instead Taylor’s grab-bag structure conveys her apparent belief that nothing other than novelty and momentary distraction rules the definition of cool. Her insightful conclusion: “Cultural norms change with the issues and sensibilities of the times.”


The subsequent chapters follow a similar pattern. Nothing in the “Science of Cool” chapter is particularly scientific—just more lists of pop-culture artifacts and some musings about the different species of cool that blacks and geeks represent. The “Business of Cool” chapter takes a very general look at fashion cycles, advertising methods, and the utility of demographic studies, along with several tangentially related lists of celebrities and fads.


The last chapter endorses the noxious practice of coolhunting and offers a taxonomy of allegedly cool people in contemporary society: the cool teacher, the cool rebels, the cool “quirksters” and so on. Basically, this means more lists of celebrities. Nothing theat preceded these lists gives readers the impression that Taylor is particularly qualified to create them; any regular VH1 viewer should be able to devise their own categories and write their own chapter along these lines. Presumably, if you are playing along, the chapter could serve as a canned conversation starter: Can you name any more “cool moms”?


Though something of a rush job (you won’t have to strain too hard to find proofreading errors), the book appears to have been engineered to come across as “fun”. Its stark textured cover, embossed with the word Cool and nothing else, suggests a calculated attempt to appeal to the sort of people who fantasize about being graphic designers. Its thick, glossy pages are amply illustrated, and full of infographics and charts, boldfaced subheadings, and easily digestible short paragraphs sharing historical tidbits and offhand generalizations about the businesses of trend spotting and fashion marketing. It seems destined to be the sort of book that ends up on the back of the toilet under a pile of magazines, to be resorted to only when the latest issue of Life & Style has yielded all its pleasures.

Rating:

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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