Thursday, 20 September 2012

Books are not cool

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Amanda Craig, the novelist, blogs here thoughtfully about reading being uncool. 

Reading a lot is not very cool, or at least readers who read a lot are usually not cool, but certain books are cool. 

Intelligence, not at all the same thing as being well read, is part of being cool, if you wear your learning lightly. Or, more accurately, lack of intelligence is uncool. A beautiful woman friend of mine lusted after Bryan Ferry until she met him at  a party in Cambridge and he said to her, 'I like Cambridge. It's so old.' Those words broke his spell completely.

I used to read voraciously as a boy, a teenager and an undergraduate (though not alas books on my university syllabus) and now having suspended Facebook and learnt how to buy books on my kindle I intend to do so again. It was having time to read that was after all the principal reason why as a teenager I wanted to be a lifelong bachelor. 

Cool is a phenomenon that historians should study. It is linked to bullying and all about pecking order. It is the distant cousin of street cred which at Julie Burchill's school required you closely to resemble an autist. 

Style is different. Style is individual, which differentiates it from cool. Cool is coercive and conformist. Style might be very self conscious but it comes, like sex appeal, from within. Among Englishmen in Romania, Mr. Indrei Ratiu has it and he was kind enough to say I do too. Evil people may be cool but they never have style, anymore than they have a strong sense of beauty.

The man I knew who had most style was the late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, but he was certainly not cool. Some famous rock star who became a Catholic used to visit him at the Travellers' Club, where he lived for the last thirty years of his life, for confession every week. That was cool. Cool is or can be a form of cruel snobbery but is not related to normal English snobbery, is even an antidote to it. I am reminded of Thackeray saying that Brummel was the greatest dandy of them all and his father was a footman.

What writers are cool? Kerouac whom I never read undoubtedly is, as is William Burroughs whom I also never read. Jay McInerney, whom I have read and who is wonderful, and Bret Easton Ellis, who is no good, succeeded in being cool when I was just down from university. Evelyn Waugh is cool, while P.G. Wodehouse is not. 

Reading poetry is always cool, except for Sir Henry Newbolt and Sir John Betjeman, but the poets themselves are not necessarily. Virgil is cool and Ovid more so, Homer not at all. Is Shakespeare cool?  Not really - though Marlowe perhaps was.  Milton was not, except for Satan. Pope might be, Chaucer definitely not. Cowper, are you kidding me?

Who is the least cool author? There can only be one answer to that: J.R.R. Tolkien. Even C.S. Lewis was cool in comparison. 

Amanda Craig, with whom I started, says:
"Personally, the fact that reading isn’t cool has always been one of its attractions. The relief of leaving behind any pretensions to this in my twenties was immense; not having to pretend I liked clubbing, not having to pretend to enjoy drugs, or stiletto heels or one-night stands or smoking….the list goes on and on, and bliss it was to wave them goodbye."

I was incapable of being cool and yet I remember now the deep sense of inferiority in my twenties at not knowing how to be. Now I live happily in Romania where nothing and no-one is cool. It was easier in the 1930s or 1940s before cool was invented. Historians should write about this phenomenon, as well as the social implications of popular music after 1960 and the history of anti-racism since 1945. if they also explain the social effects of the pill and the reasons for the economic miracle in the non-socialist world, we or our children shall then understand the history of the rich world in the last half century.

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