The definition of cool

Author Marianne Taylor plumbs the essence of cool in her new book, although, she says, “I’ve learned to embrace my uncool self.’’ Author Marianne Taylor plumbs the essence of cool in her new book, although, she says, “I’ve learned to embrace my uncool self.’’ (Bill Brett for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / August 29, 2009

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In “The Book of Cool’’ (Running Press), Marianne Taylor writes, “Trying to define cool is like trying to determine the length of infinity or the color of air.’’ That doesn’t stop her, however, from plumbing the essence of cool and who and what embodies it, from Margaret Sanger to Miles Davis, Chia Pets to Crocs. Winner of Ms. magazine’s 2005 Fiction Contest, Taylor teaches Visual Art and Media Literacy in the Brookline school system and is co-author of “The Starving Artist’s Survival Guide.’’ She checked in by phone on a hot summer day.

Q. Let’s get straight to your book’s subtitle. What is cool, who decides it, and why do we care so much?

A. Today’s youth culture is constantly hit over the head with cool merchandise. Does Madison Avenue decide what’s cool? If not, who does? People are hard-pressed to define it, which is why so much money is spent on cool-hunting. Cool is hot.

Q. But by definition, isn’t hot the antithesis of cool?

A. Hot refers to what’s currently popular. Cool is more timeless. Nothing is uncooler than when a brand or person tries too hard to be cool.

Q. Cool: inherited quality or learned behavior?

A. It’s hard to learn cool. Jack Black [in “School of Rock’’] exemplifies what I call the Cool Teacher, but he doesn’t try to be one. He just innately possesses elements we associate with cool.

Q. Did you know “Obama’’ has become a synonym for “cool,’’ according to a new slang dictionary?

A. [Laughs] I did not. But he’s a great example of what I’m describing. He’s not trying to be cool, he just is.

Q. Let’s play a game we’ll call Who’s Cool? First up: Sarah Palin.

A. Being a good feminist, I’m torn about her. I give her points for being spunky. But cool she’s not.

Q. Skip Gates.

A. You’re getting me in trouble here. I’d say no, because he really didn’t keep his cool.

Q. Paul McCartney.

A. Never been a big fan, although he’s got longevity going for him. Rock stars generally lose their cool once they start endorsing products, though.

Q. Jack Bauer.

A. Absolutely. The poster boy for Aloof Cool.

Q. Sonia Sotomayor.

A. Love her. The prototype of Wild-Woman Cool.

Q. What’s the coolest thing you own?

A. A collection of easy listening record compilations from the 1960s. The music is so uncool, it’s cool. I also love the fact that I can buy them on eBay without bidding against anybody else.

Q. Coolest place you’ve been?

A. Ocean Grove, N.J. It used to be a gated Methodist colony, then an enclave for mental patients, then gay men started buying up all the real estate. So now it’s a combination of mentally ill people, gay men, and religious Methodists, all living in some bizarre kind of harmony. Extremely cool.

Q. Who teaches you about cool these day?

A. I have a teenage daughter who tells me, “Mom, you could be Beyoncé, and you wouldn’t be cool.’’ I’ve learned to embrace my uncool self, and having a teenager sure helps.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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