Cultural Studies - How To Be Cool [Book Review]

In How To Be Cool, Thomas W. Hodgkinson attempts to trace the lineage of the twentieth-century concept of “cool” by examining its leading cultural exponents and their contributing socio-cultural ideas. The term, he maintains, originated in the New York jazz scene of the 1930s, and has “something to do with style and . . . emotional composure”. Since, according to Hodgkinson, the allure of “coolness” lies in its fluidity, such ambiguity in definition is characteristic of “cool” itself. As linguistic definition is problematic, he focuses instead on “Nine Defining Qualities of Cool” that are embodied in a variety of “idols” and “ideas and ideals”.

Part One, ‘Idols’, lists “the 75 people who have contributed most to defining or refining our idea of what ‘cool’ has come to mean”. Hodgkinson emphasises his intended objectivity here, yet his process of selection is inevitably a subjective one. Most of his ‘idols’ are American actors, musicians or authors, (Kerouac, Brando, Dean, Ginsberg) many of whom operated within similar spheres of influence. Each ‘idol’ is accompanied by a biography, however the profiles are so abridged that they leave the reader confused as to how the subjects embody Hodgkinson’s concept of ‘cool’. Arthur Rimbaud, for instance, is “a total bastard”, whilst Antonioni’s films are “extremely boring and exceedingly pretentious”. Most troubling, Hodgkinson obsesses on the beauty of his female ‘idols’, implying that their worth and ‘cool’ quotient depends on their capacity to excite the opposite sex.

Read the rest of the review in The Times Literary Supplement.

[This piece was published on 20/05/17]