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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.