*Check out my poem, Complex Numbers, on The Burlesque Press Variety Show!*
When I was an undergraduate at William and Mary, I would sometimes leave my boring campus and go to visit one of my best friends who went to art school in a nearby city. At that point in his life, my friend was concerned (as was I, and as were most people we knew) with being cool. Of course, we couldn’t admit this, since trying to be cool signified the ultimate failure in attaining actual coolness.
Part of the problem was that my friend went to art school, where coolness police were on constant patrol. He also lived in a ramshackle house with a bunch of cool dudes: tattooed artists and musicians who listened to bands I’d never heard of and had profound opinions about zombie movies I’d never seen. I would sit on the cigarette-burned couch in my pink sundress with boys wearing black jeans and band t-shirts: drinking PBRs, trying to participate in their witty/sarcastic banter, and hoping that they would think I was cool.
They did not.
“I like girls with short hair and tattoos,” I remember one of them telling me. I’d had a crush on this particular boy ever since he’d moved into the house, but after that I realized my perky ponytail and un-inked skin wasn’t going to be cool enough for him. Shortly thereafter, he started dating a girl with dyed-black hair and a pirate ship tattooed on her bicep.
Of course, it wasn’t just the way I looked that made me uncool. It was so many things: I went to a dorky school. I was too nice. I took daily showers. I still liked The Dismemberment Plan even though everyone else was over them.
That was one thing that made you really uncool in this crowd: not listening to the right music. Which was why, one day, my dear friend asked me to buy a CD for him at the local record store. This was the cool record shop where all the cool kids shopped, and where the hipster clerks visibly judged you based on what you were buying. My friend wanted an album he knew wouldn’t be seen as cool, and so he felt like he couldn’t be seen buying it. Since I was already uncool, I could buy it and spare him the embarrassment. So I did.
And then there was another time, at a bar, when the same friend asked if I would order an apple martini because he’d always wanted to try one but he didn’t want to be seen ordering a fruity girl drink. I ordered it and let him drink most of it while I drank his beer. I did these things because he was my friend. And also because I understood his desire to be seen as cool.
I’d like to say that I’m over all that now. And in some ways I am. I’m no longer concerned with music snobs who act superior because they listen to obscure bands. I no longer try to impress hipsters or fear that my clothes are too colorful. But, I have to admit, there’s still a part of me that wants to be seen as cool, and these days it’s the book snobs I worry about.
There were a lot of book snobs in my MFA program, and since I’d been a math and science major at William and Mary, I suddenly felt like I hadn’t read enough of the “important” books to be seen as a literary intellectual. Up until that point, I had read mostly for entertainment, which, in that crowd, was totally uncool.
And even now I’m concerned with what the world thinks about my reading choices. Just yesterday, I went for a walk and stopped by the Little Free Library near my house to drop off the Margaret Atwood novel I’d recently finished. In the box was Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell. I’m a fan of the show, and I’ve always been curious about the books — were they smartly-written or mostly crap? So I snatched up Sex in the City and continued on my way.
Immediately, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be seen walking around Seattle carrying a hot pink paperback with a sultry Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover. I tucked the book under my arm, hiding it from a man passing me on the street. Had he seen it? Did he think I was some kind of airhead who reads nothing but trashy chick-lit?
This happens to me at the library and the bookstore, too. I worry what the librarians think of me, and in fact I have sometimes tossed a Cormac McCarthy or Gabriel García Márquez book onto my pile just so that I’ll seem a little bit more intelligent at the check-out counter. The Kindle was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I could peacefully read The Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in public without worrying what people thought of me.
When I started writing novels, and they all started coming out of as Young Adult or middle grade, I decided I should read more books from these categories in order to better understand the market. “Go to the book store and browse the YA section,” a friend recommended, but I found it hard to stand next to a giant display of Twilight books and read the back of The Princess Diaries without feeling self-conscious.
In fact, I still find it hard. “I’m just looking at these for research!” I want to shout to the snide bookstore clerks in their black-rimmed glasses.
What I need to remind myself is that they probably don’t care what I’m reading. Neither do the librarians.
Neither did the music store clerks or the bartenders back when my friend and I were trying so hard to be cool. We only thought they cared because we cared so much.
It’s the caring too much that makes you uncool. Or, at least, caring too much about other people’s opinions.
I’m not saying that some people aren’t going to judge you if you sit out in the open reading a Vampire Academy book (especially if you’re over eighteen). But they’re not going to care as much as you think they will, and they’re going to forget about a split second later. Why base what you’re reading (or listening to, or watching, or drinking) on something as silly as what other people think of you?
The secret to coolness is owning it, whatever it is. So, yeah, I’m going to read this Sex and the City book because I’m curious about it, and because sometimes I like chick-lit. I don’t give a crap what anyone else thinks.
Of course, that’s not totally true. I do sort of wish I had it on my Kindle instead of this hot pink paperback edition. Oh well. I never said I was cool.