10 Books That Make You Look Cool

This came in as a search engine query a week or so ago, and it made me laugh. And then I liked it as an idea and began to wonder what the properties of a ‘cool’ book would be. There are all sorts of definitions of ‘cool’ beyond ‘neat-o’ and ‘awesome’, wikipedia even offers a potted history of its incarnations across the globe, but for this list, I stuck with books I thought were timelessly sophisticated, innovative and authentic. And I tried to think which books would engender most respect in me, if I saw someone reading them in a café. This is only a bit of fun, though, not intended to be in anyway definitive, and indeed I could have come up with about ten lists, there are so many cool books. Frankly, I think it’s cool to see anyone reading in a public place, particularly if it’s a real book with a cover that will satisfy my curiosity!


on the roadOn The Road by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac and the Beat generation of writers epitomised cool in their era and produced work of sufficient quality to last the test of time. Kerouac’s genuine passion for creativity and innovation is what does it for me. I own a group biography that’s entitled The Typewriter Was Holy, which about sums it up. The group’s cult of drug use and the latent sexism was not cool, however, let us be clear on that point.

The Roads to Freedom trilogy by Sartre, or anything by Beauvoir (or Camus)

The Existentialists were the great proponents of cool in 20th century Europe. No movement had as much influence or produced as many great works. I’m easy about throwing Camus in the heap with them, although not everyone is. Of course, it’s really cool if you know that Camus isn’t always considered an Existentialist. It’s even cooler if you know that The Roads to Freedom was intended to be a tetrology but Sartre never got around to writing the last book. But if you’re lugging Being and Nothingness about your person, you’re either trying too hard or an extremely assiduous philosophy student.

the recognitionsThe Recognitions by William Gaddis

Complex, demanding and absolutely enormous, this book has to represent a certain intense commitment to the purest spirit of the literary. I confess I began this one and didn’t finish it because I knew I was not in the right place to devote the sort of concentration and focus to it that it needs. One day I’ll get around to it. Though I doubt I’ll be caught reading it in public, as carrying that brick in a shoulder bag is a good way to acquire an osteopath. I’d probably add David Foster Wallace and his Infinite Jest in this same category.

Just about any ancient classic

These are read by so few people these days that to know about them and to enjoy them has to represent a real cherry-picker’s mentality to literature and a certain independence of spirit. Personally, I’d be more likely to strike up a conversation with someone reading one of the funner options, like Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or The Odyssey. For Plato’s Republic, see my thoughts on Being and Nothingness. And that will probably unleash a stream of comments telling me what an amazing hoot The Republic is.

Anything by Kafka

Why is Kafka cool? I have no idea, but he just is.

anna akhmatovaPoetry

I think it’s extremely cool to see anyone reading poetry. If pressed, I’d probably think it even cooler if the volume in question came from someone who’s really good but not particularly well known, like George Seferis or Anna Akhmatova. But hey, really, any poetry.

NYRB Classics

The NYRB editors really have their collective finger on the pulse of cool. The authors are just obscure enough, but the work often unjustly overlooked. Plus the design of those books is wonderful: understated, elegant, instantly recognisable.

The work of Zora Neale Hurston

I’d happily include Alice Walker and Nella Larssen along with Zora Neale, all of them women who overcame many cultural obstacles to produce wonderful writing that inspired others. To read them is to buy into that spirit at some level, I think.

the walking deadThe Walking Dead graphic novels

It’s what the teenagers consider cool reading these days. As regular visitors to this site will know, my son is not a reader. But he devours these and then passes them around his group of friends who are all equally keen. Zombies always have a certain counterculture cool about them, don’t you think? It seems, though, that Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation has overtaken Plath’s The Bell Jar as the adolescent depressive’s book of choice.

Anything by Virginia Woolf

And finally, that darling of the Modernists and Queen of Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf. Sophisticated, innovative, authentic, yes all these boxes can easily be ticked when it comes to Woolfie. And it’s a delight to think of this polite and terribly well-bred woman gender-bending and messing with the serious genre of biography and writing about politics and joyfully subverting conventional narrative. Very cool indeed.

33 thoughts on “10 Books That Make You Look Cool

  1. I would surely agree with Albert Camus and Virginia Woolf. And I very much agree with your comment “I think it’s cool to see anyone reading in a public place,” When I see them I try to get a sneasky photo because I just love it.

  2. Oh boy Sartre. I thought I was dead cool reading him as a 17 year old when none of my friends had even heard of him. I understood little but hey he was French and everyone else was just reading Dennis Wheatley……..

    • I remember the covers to those Dennis Wheatley novels – they had these really scary looking horned devils on them! I discovered Sartre around 17 too, though I had no idea he might be considered cool – I was very naive!

  3. Ah dear, I feel out of the loop here. Not only have I not read many of these or been seen carrying them around, but I wouldn’t recognize one if I fell over it – quite possible with some of the chunksters.
    Perhaps Kafka’s cool, if he is, because he fits a dystopian view into the ordinary so well. Most such fiction is presented as an alternative society (he says with limited reading of such works), but Kafka drops his events into everyday society – far more frightening not to have the distance of a framing other scenario for the world. I know you say any poetry, but all your poets, accepting it’s a slim list, are foreign. Interesting, and you don’t mention Rilke, one of your favourites! I’ve read the Sartre and Camus, but way back and I can’t remember if I thought that cool at the time, if cool was the term then. Perhaps a book is cool if you might be reading it because you have a sneaking feeling that you may not understand it – Foster Wallace comes to mind. There are also the victims of suicide (like him and Plath – recent anniversary), and government destruction, to consider.

    • There are literally thousands of books I could have picked for this, so I don’t doubt you have huge quantities of cool reading under your belt! I love what you say about Kafka; I think you’ve really hit on something there. And remember that the Europeans are the writers I know – I have enormous chunks of Eng. Lit. missing from my reading…..

  4. Argh! I have none of these. And worse still, a mutual friend of ours was writing about (and presumably reading) Sartre in his teens.

    • I so nearly added Neal Stephenson to this list! But seriously, this is a random selection from thousands of possible books. And I really must remind everyone that I am addicted to un-cool books too! 🙂 I’ll bet you were reading all sorts of cool stuff in your teenage years too.

  5. Love it! I definitely agree about reading ancient classics — when I see somebody reading something from classical antiquity I always want to chat with them — and Zora Neale Hurston. But On the Road, I must differ. If the first thing I discover about somebody is that they like On the Road, it’s not entirely unlikely to be the last thing I discover because ugh I cannot be bothered with the Beat generation.

    (I know that’s a mean generalization. But too bad! They can’t be bothered with me (and by “me” I mean “women”) so I can’t be bothered with them EITHER.)

  6. I discovered your blog through Caroline’s blog (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat). Your blog looks great and I love the header image. Wonderful post on cool books! I am planning to read the first part of Sartre’s ‘The Roads to Freedom’ trilogy, two of Simone de Beauvoir’s books and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs.Dalloway’ this year. Not bad books to read, aren’t they? 🙂 Looking forward to reading your bookish posts. Happy reading!

    • Vishy, it’s a pleasure to have you visit. And that is a wonderful selection of reading you have ahead of you. I really appreciated The Age of Reason when I read it (and liked it better than Nausea). And Mrs Dalloway is fab. Happy reading to you, too!

  7. Well, going back to my late teens, before I realised that the only thing which is really cool is no longer caring whether you’re cool or not, my reading list was largely continental – Sartre, Camus, the Beats, Kafka, Beckett, Calvino, Perec etc, etc. Also very male, I notice now.

    • So true! Independent thinking is definitely the trump card of cool. I fell in love with European literature when I was in my late teens – Hesse, Sartre, Proust, Beauvoir and Kafka were the ones that blew me away. A couple of years after that, it was all the women for me, but most reading lists were dominated by male authors then (presuming we are not too far apart in age!) and it took a while to track them down.

  8. After reading the first paragraph of your post I immediately thought “Camus.” Oh, I do love him. Or Nicolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which I read in college when I was studying Russian (the language). Every day in my commute to and from work I have to go through a part of town often referred to as “the projects” which is a very low income (and probably low self esteem – sadly) part of town. There is a very nice park, though, next to an elementary school. I drove by one day and saw a teenager sitting on one of the benches reading a book. It felt so good to see that…I felt hopeful and happy. I couldn’t see what he was reading, but I thought it cool beyond words nevertheless. Very very cool.

    • I love Camus. Gogol, however, I have yet to read (and that goes for most Russian authors – I know shamefully few of them). I also love your story about the teenager reading. That’s exactly what I mean – it lifts my heart every time I see someone with a book in their hands, and it means even more on the rough side of town.

  9. I thought about Russian authors as well. And what about anyone reading European Classics in the original language? For me that is the definition of ‘cool’.

  10. Aged 18, I thought there was nothing cooler than reading Camus (it had a picture of him smoking a cigarette). But I never had the courage to read him in public. I did read The Idiot on the train to work when I was a bit older. Now I’ve convinced myself that reading novels by people that next to no one reads is also cool. Oh, we are so vain!

  11. Reading Satre and Camus is cool, reading them in French is beyond cool (can’t touch that!).
    I would add to your list Ulyssess. I hated it, but I thought it looked cool that I was reading it. Of course, I kept my yellow Cliffnotes reading guide well out of eyesight, because that’s not cool.
    This makes me think of this bit I read in a book of AA Milne’s essays, where he recounts the story of an acquaintance who always carried a Russian novel in Russian on the off chance that if he were ever in an accident, it would make him look intelligent in his obituary to be found with a Russian novel in the original in his pocket.

  12. Ha. I just started reading a book of Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenska this week. I am cool and I didn’t even know it! 🙂 I wonder what people think of me sitting in the library on my breaks–a university campus, Kafka in hand, and now I just need to dress all in black–you know–black jeans, black turtleneck and black flats….I read Kerouac when I was just out of college, pick up the odd Virginia Woolf novel and love my NYRBs. What a fun exercise in coolness!

  13. As litlove and litwist, I have to say, we’re meant to cross paths 😉

    And since I am pathologically behind with reading the classics, I shall follow you to help rectify this unholy situation! Thanks for the reading list!

    And seriously speaking though, regarding the classics, some of them are just wonderful to me. Others are unbearable. I guess that’s the point. The main reason to read them is to know why the heck they ended up being classics in the first place and decide our personal view on them.

    Love them or hate them, it’s fine. To engage in thoughtful debate with the literature and expose ourselves to different points of views is a healthy habit worthy of fostering.

    Fun post.

  14. Pingback: belgianwaffle » 10 Books That Make You Look Cool

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