Books
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In the Know

Nancy MacDonell

The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool

(Penguin)

There are about as many different ways to be “cool” as there are cool people. This is the problem with writing a guide to coolness, a problem that I imagine author Nancy MacDonell and Penguin Books are aware of. This, however, did not stop them from publishing In the Know: The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool.


You might well be asking: Cultured and cool? Exactly. In my experience, my cultured friends—the types who know what wine to order and which of Hayden’s string quartets is considered best—are much less likely to be “cool” than the guy who has a killer leather jacket purchased for five bucks at a thrift store in Hoboken. Indeed, I would argue, the Hayden fans may actually be less likely to be cool than my average friend. But, string quartets you can write a book about, whereas finding that leather jacket (and then knowing how—and with what attitude—to wear it) is the realm of the indefinable.


Nevertheless, here is In the Know, with the obligatory Wayfarer sunglasses on the cover—but also with a glass of wine on the cover. Which, really will it be?


The answer, as is so often the case, is in biography. MacDonell is a fashion writer, and so her guide to cool is dominated by pithy explanations of “Five Films Every Fashion Fan Has Seen” and “Ten Iconic Objects and Their Designers” and “Five Women Who Designers Love to Reference”. I realize how subjective this sort of thing is, but the people I consider “cool” would not know these things and generally consider the world of runway shows and $3,000 chairs to be puffed-up bull, the likes of which only the rich or the pretentious (and probably both) care about.


To be fair, MacDonell begins with the understanding that “[c]ool is maddeningly elusive to define, which is part of its allure. For the purposes of this book, I’ve thought of it as cultural literacy combined with a refined aesthetic sense.” She admits that it is “personal” and “highly subjective”, but it remains that MacDonell’s version of cool is more about having a snobby sense of design than it is about knowing a great, still-ignored bar in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. But, ill-advised and self-driven as it may be, In the Know proceeds thusly—that a large modicum of “cool” is driven by being “cultured” in a certain way. And, from that premise, it lists its heart out, trying to inform you of the stuff you need to know to be more MacDonell-esque. So, how does it do?  It is fun to read?


On at least one self-defined aim, MacDonell falls flat. In the introduction she says that she has “left out anything too obvious. You don’t need me to tell you who David Bowie is or that you should read Catcher in the Rye.” Good idea. But, in execution, the book is rife with the obvious, but only the obvious in areas that MacDonell (or the publishers) think uncultured folks won’t know about. So, for example, when listing a jazz album you should own, first up is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the best-selling classic jazz album of all time. Like, duh. An important choreographer to know?  George Balanchine, of course! (Let me ignore the fact that Balanchine and Martha Graham both show up on a list of “Ten Cultural Innovators”, as if a fascination with ballet were a defining element of cool.) The list “Ten Books You Should Read” is just English 103 at Swarthmore: Madame Bovary, “The Metamorphosis”, Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Do I have to tell you that The Bell Jar is on the list? Reading Sylvia Plath in college is already a cultural cliché of the first order.


What In the Know lacks, ultimately, is cool stuff—inside information that might allow you to negotiate a late night party with panache, shorthand for the kind of hip coding that can get you hobnobbing with the really down people. Don’t tell me that Miles played cool trumpet in 1959, tell me that avant-curator John Zorn books all the music at the Stone on Avenue C in 2007. Don’t tell me that Studio 54 used to be a “legendary nightclub of the past, tell me where the hip people might be going tomorrow. Don’t tell what a Manhattan and a Martini are—my parents had me make them these cocktails in 1968. And, goodness, don’t tell me what Chardonnay and Merlot are! Tell me about a cool Belgian beer, maybe, or about the right way to prepare a shot of absinthe.


Aside from what is discussed here, there is how the material is considered. It’s cool that this is basically a book of lists—the kind of book that you read in a nonlinear style and, therefore, should never be boring. But the short blurbs that fill out these lists have the zing of mayonnaise. The five paragraphs on Fellini’s 8 1/2, for example, are 60% straight plot summary: “Guido seeks comfort from his dead father, who leads him into the graveyard where he’s buried; there, his mother kisses him and turns into his wife.” The chance to be pithy, funny, cute or sly is passed over at every turn.  The (endless) sections on fashion are particularly sans-chuckles, as MacDonell carries on mirthlessly about what is plainly her favorite subject. “Though she’s best remembered as the woman who gave the New Look its name, it’s unfair to reduce Carmel Snow to this one comment.” Who? The editor of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s? Are you sure that knowing more about this going to make me ... cooooool?


In the end, it comes down to this: cultured doesn’t really equal cool, and knowing about fancy handbags and chic hotels doesn’t make you cultured. As a result, In the Know simply doesn’t know what it’s trying to do other than to give Nancy MacDonell a chance to write about the stuff that she likes. I will save you the read. She likes clothes and fancy design objects generally, she likes obscure and expensive vacation spots and schootsy-wootsy hotels. She likes Dorothy Parker and all the books you read as a freshman at a decent college, and she digs the Magnetic Fields, a “band” consisting of this cat, Stephin Merritt, who is a tedious and depressing cat indeed. Will a more complete inventory of this stuff help you be cool?


As an alternative, I suggest you skip these mainly superficial affectations and grab a friend. Go to a local watering hole and eat at the bar. Laugh at people who, unlike you, are wearing over-expensive clothes or are talking about Diana Vreeland. You are wearing old jeans that fit well, and there is no merlot in sight.


There: you are now pretty cool. Listen to Kind of Blue on your way home—a nod to Ms. MacDonell. It never hurt anybody.

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Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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