Within the pages of a vintage book, current and future events are a known quantity. There’s no mystery, no tragedy that hasn’t already been resolved by the time you’re reading it. Secreted away in its storyline, you’re safe, but you’ve also got other worlds to visit, to decode, and to use as mirrors in which you can see yourself and your life with the benefit of some detachment. For people who learned to escape into books, an old and well-loved book represents a very specific type of happiness.

Some of the best vintage books I read while growing up were about spectacularly subversive girls and women. As a strong, opinionated girl being raised in a ragingly macho culture, absorbing a thousand messages about all the ways in which I was a female failure, I drew courage and validation from those books. Headstrong, kind, and with a fierce sense of integrity and justice, these were girls and young women who were thrown away by society; forced out of their homes and sent to live in Siberia; mocked and misunderstood for being true to themselves. There were, too, the adventurous boys with more freedom than I could ever hope to have; who ran detective agencies and left their crowded homes to live in the wilderness, tame a falcon, and make leather trousers from a deer hide by hand. (The latter seems like a skill I would really put to good use now.)

Others were written from the point of view of witty, brash women, with children and husbands and, among all of that, a palpable sense of frustration at being held back by dint of their gender. Jean Kerr ‘s essays and Shirley Jackson‘s novels about the life of her young family fascinated me in particular, with their astonishment at the utter weirdness of everyday life as an intelligent woman strapped—as though to the nose of a rocket—to a home and children and a man who might or might not be all that interested in any of it.

In these stories, I found traces of myself, the good as well as the bad, and I learned strategies and methods for not giving up on myself. I discovered options I hadn’t known existed for me. Once in awhile I’ll pick up one of those old books again and I’m surprised to recognize myself in the pages, so deeply have their lessons and general style sunk into my DNA.

And all of that before we even get to the particulars about vintage design, or printing, or that intoxicating old-book smell.

John Ptak is a bookseller whose inventory is strictly vintage science, technology, and “the history of ideas.” We exchanged emails about vintage versus modern books.

Vintage books will generally be printed on a better paper than moderns (unless it was during wartime or France between the wars and so on) and so will have a better feel. I think vintage books gave the reader’s eyes an easier time by giving more margin space (and more room for marginalia). I happen to like older design more so than modern, except when it comes to cover design, where the two run a tight race to the coolest. There are fantastic covers designed from, say, the beginning of Bauhaus and such, but the oldsters have their own highly addictive styles going way back to stamped vellum in the 15th century. Dust jackets are relatively recent to the book world, and there I’d probably give the cooler design over to modern than to vintage books.

“Vintage (but not necessarily collectible or valuable) books are also bath-tubable, meaning that if they get a little soggy or splashed they will dry out with enhanced character from the experience. Drinking glass rings on the cover tell stories, as do other attractive defects, a kind of Kintsugi in an odd way, or at least acknowledging or celebrating the rough patches and wear that the book has experienced and tolerated.

“Lastly, vintage books just smell great and could have (and probably do, now that I think of it) their own bottleable fragrance. My guess is that in a blind scent test 9 of 10 would prefer an old paperback smell to a new one.” 

Ah, that glorious scent. A quick look online confirms that it’s available as a bottleable fragrance, as well as in endless iterations of candle scents. And while “old book” might not be a sexy description, it’s better than the particulars. What you smell in an old book is the breakdown of the cellulose and lignin in the paper, turning into several distinct organic compounds, like toluene and ethyl benzene (both of which smell sweet), benzaldehyde and furfural (both smell a bit like almonds), vanillin (guess what that smells like?), and 2-ethyl hexanol (which gives off a slightly floral scent). Sweet, almondy, vanilla-esque, flowery decay.  I think that’s subversive as hell.

Little wonder, then, that vintage books appear in this Compendium, comprising as they do some of the basic tenets of cool: survival, identity, attitude, and subversion.


~ Emma Alvarez Gibson



Cool is a coin that buys the bearer a fistful of slack.


There’s a moment in the stunning 4K remaster of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that would bankrupt any other actor’s trove of good will: Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name—the eponymous Good to Lee Van Cleef’s Bad and Eli Wallach’s Ugly—is holed up in a war-blasted town with Van Cleef and his gang, and is seen inexplicably cuddling a wee kitten in the bowl of his iconic cowboy hat¹. It’s a blink-and-you’d-miss-it-moment that would be laughably absurd in the hands of anyone other than Eastwood, but Clint’s effortless cool is like the steel plate beneath his poncho in A Fistful of Dollars: an impenetrable barrier to harm, proof against scorn and ridicule. This is a cool that minted an icon, its coin still paying dividends in everything from Tarantino’s entire catalog to the guilty pleasures of The Mandalorian

But Eastwood’s Man With No Name is the kind of cool that cannot be copied: it’s in the languor and looseness of his careless stride, a killing machine in a surfer’s lank-limbed frame;  it’s in the sandblasted squint of the eyes and the thoughtful sip of the cigarillo, lit from a thumb-struck match; it’s in the sun-scorched hardpan of Eastwood’s young face, already cragged and crannied like the dusty Mexican deserts that once rang with the jangle of his spurs. It’s a cool that defined man and genre, borrowed but never bettered.

The Dollars Trilogy reinvented the Western the way cyberpunk would later rewire science fiction: with a gritty, greedy realism and a lived-in landscape bleached of virtue, crowded with characters of questionable morals and motives. Leone’s sweeping vistas are as arid and cultivated as his extreme closeups are sweaty and visceral, all set to Ennio Morricone’s unmistakable, quintessential score. But in the Compendium of Cool, the films’ most lasting legacy will always be the poncho-clad gunslinger, cigarillo clamped between jaw-clenched teeth, his gunsmoke forever drifting over the high plains.  


~ Clay D. Major


¹ The Man himself may have no name but his clothes were haute couture: Eastwood outfitted himself for the role, shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for the black jeans and trademark hat; he picked up the legendary poncho in Spain.




Sassy was the first magazine for teenage girls that assumed we were intelligent individuals, and addressed us in the same ways we spoke. The very first issue I read, in 1988, felt dangerous, almost chaotic in its honesty. Who’d let this happen? Who’d signed off on this, and had they realized what they were doing? Every other magazine was written in a tone that assumed we were WASP-y Stepford girls who couldn’t wait to get married and make meatloaf and stay on a diet for the rest of our days in order to keep the mister interested. The language was stilted and phony; the patriarchy’s fingerprints were all over the entire mess.

Sassy was my first inkling that I wasn’t alone, that there were smart, kind, feminist girls who loved bands most people at school had never heard of, who didn’t want to be cheerleaders or grow up to be soccer moms. Because not only did this magazine exist for its readers; it was written by older versions of girls like us. Their personalities and experiences informed so much of Sassy that we, the readers, felt as though we knew them all. I thought of them as my cooler, older sisters. 

The very first Sassiest Girl in America, Rinnan Henderson (pictured above), ended up moving to New York City to pursue an acting career a couple of years after her reign. She was welcomed in as a roommate by one of the Sassy staffers.

“She was like a big sister to me! She looked out for me. We had so much fun. And we still keep in touch,” Henderson said.

The Sassy staff wrote about and interviewed bands like Bikini Kill, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the Ramones. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were on the cover before they appeared in any other magazine. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth contributed recipes. Their writers regularly reviewed zines, mentioned Riot Grrrls, spewed inches of considerable venom about mainstream pop culture. They were the disenfranchised, alternative teenager’s dream come true. (I seethed with jealousy when one of the writers for their yearly reader-produced issue interviewed Henry Rollins.)

But it was more than that. Sassy was covering topics and featuring people  that no other teen magazine would even touch. They had stories like “How’s that Drug War Going, Guys?” that skewered the elder President Bush, calling out unpleasant truths the likes of which, even now, many people my parents’ age are unaware. One feature discussed what to do when you have a crush on your teacher; unlike all other publications, it also discussed what to do when your teacher has a crush on you. These things were happening around us, in junior high and high school, but adults didn’t believe us. Sassy faced these situations head on and approached them openly, as they did sex, birth control, and other topics that were then considered highly taboo where teenagers were concerned.

They pissed off a lot of people. Far-right outrage translated to a lack of ad dollars. Ultimately, that was the bottom line, though myriad other issues contributed as well. (It bears noting that even as advertising dollars began to disappear, standout brands like John Fluevog continued to buy ad space). The staff were let go; the property was sold and morphed into a stereotypically vapid teen magazine. I was heartbroken. For teenage girls who didn’t fit in at school, in their communities, in their own homes, Sassy was a lifeline. Even if we didn’t know one another, we learned that there were others like us. And that, during a time before the internet made it easy to connect, was everything.


See also: 



~ Emma Alvarez Gibson



At age 5, I found some scraps of wood, a few nails, and a hammer in the garage. I did the obvious thing and made a bed for one of my dolls. It wasn’t perfect, I thought, not by a long shot: the wood was rough and each piece was a different size and shape, so it didn’t stand straight (prompting me to realize that, actually, I’d made a cradle I could rock). Even at that age, I wasn’t under any illusions that anyone would find it beautiful or even charming, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, I had made a doll bed with my own two hands, with no help from anyone.

And that’s how I became a lover of all things DIY. The thought, effort, problem-solving, and creativity I put into this project birthed in me the notion that, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to do something, there was a good chance I could figure it out.

Next came ads, offering my services to the neighborhood as an accomplished weed-puller and a kindly baby-sitter, respectively. By age 9 I’d created a magazine (singular, as in just one copy) called SuperKid!, in which I wrote about books, actors, and fashion. Friendship bracelets came after that, and then collages. I scoured craft books (which, in the 80s, seemed to be the only useful resource for DIY projects) for ideas, then tried my hand at customizing the ideas I liked best. I studied art and fashion magazines and reconstructed the looks I saw, borrowing clothes and accessories from both my parents. (One piece I remember fondly was a velvet blazer from the 70s, which I turned inside-out to reveal its satiny, peacock-blue lining. My father was unamused when he discovered it.) In high school, some of my DIYs came from the pages of Sassy magazine (a dress made from the skirt of a thrifted sundress, a leotard top, a length of ribbon, a needle and some thread) while others came from fellow goth kids (take a pair of fishnets, cut off the feet, cut a hole in the crotch big enough for your head to fit through, put them on, add your favorite band t-shirt over it, ideally with the neck and sleeves chopped out).

In college, before I owned a computer, I created a zine called Fiend, using the time-honored punk rock method: cutting out words and images, gluing them down, adding drawings and hand-written words, and then taking them to a copy shop, where in addition to producing a precious handful of zines, I could also make ample use of the free stapler services. Post-college, my friend Vickie and I started a business selling switchplates that we’d covered in Atomic Age fabrics, vintage comic-book images, and kitschy, mid-century ads. Some time later, I convinced my local Barnes and Noble store to carry my zine, now computer generated. (My sales were somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.06; but listen, it wasn’t about the money, man.) 

It’s important to point out that there was nothing tidy about any of this. I wasn’t working from a checklist. I was just digging around, looking for stuff that seemed interesting. Often we didn’t have the necessary supplies lying around the house, so I substituted or made do without, and the result was sometimes a crashing failure. But I knew that the next one had the potential to be amazing, and anyway I’d had fun trying. That’s the spirit of DIY, that’s where it all comes from: curiosity, and a love of learning for its own sake.

In the mid-90s, DIY began to come into its own in the West, emerging as something to celebrate, if not flaunt. With ties to third-wave feminism and punk rock, the DIY ethos struck a chord with certain segments of youth culture. By the early 2000s, it was everywhere. There were TV shows about crafting; websites that talked you through making anything from a blank book to a house you could live in; magazines devoted to collaging; Stitch n’ Bitch groups all over the globe that met regularly to knit and crochet together.

What made it so revolutionary? After all, humans have been making things for as long as we’ve existed. But this far out from the rise of industrialism, the act of making becomes somehow subversive. When it’s possible for you to buy nearly anything you need, choosing instead to make sends the message that you’re interested in learning, you take pride in hard work, and you’re willing to fail and try again. You’re interested, in other words, in growing as a human being. That speaks to a certain level of enlightenment, as far as I’m concerned. And enlightenment is very, very cool.

On a grand scale, DIY fever cooled somewhat, for a number of reasons—including, notably, the stock market crash of 2008. But the impact of that fever remained—and then along came a global pandemic. People have been trying their hands at everything from gardening to woodworking to bread baking. Which neatly underscores the biggest benefit of the DIY ethos: hope. For as many serious problems this world has, and for as many realistic Doomsday scenarios as we’re currently facing, it gives me hope that so many people continue to make things themselves.

DIY is, if nothing else, an act of optimism.


~ Emma Alvarez Gibson



A Conversation with Elizabeth Hand


Elizabeth Hand  is the bestselling author of fourteen genre-spanning novels and five collections of short fiction and essays. She is also incredibly cool, despite her assertations to the contrary. Her work has received multiple Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy and Nebula Awards, among other honors, and several of her books have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books.

EAG: Crime fiction has gotten hugely popular. It’s suddenly much cooler than it has been in recent years. I’m curious about your take on what that says about us as a society.

EH: Part of the explosion in crime fiction in the last few years has been the amount of amazing work that’s being done by women writers. Obviously there’ve always been women crime writers; Agatha Christie on to Martha GrimesSarah Paretsky. Many, many people. And people like Laura Lippman, who’s been writing for awhile now, who’s really cool and still is working.

I think probably starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was not by a woman, but I think in some ways for some writers, it perhaps opened a gateway to say, “Okay, wait. This is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.” This sort of edgy, dark, tormented individual, which is the kind of person that we see a lot in traditional crime fiction written by men. But until relatively recently not seen that many in books written by women, and now we’ve seen a lot. There’s Gone Girl, there’s Megan Abbott‘s books, there’s Laura Lippman’s books, which take a very distinctive and different view of their female characters than male writers do. And those books have proven to be hugely successful, those books by those writers, because the people who read books are women. Primarily, women are the biggest demographic buying and reading books.

I think it’s an interesting shift in how women are finding different kinds of characters to identify with in books. Characters who are more assertive, maybe more aggressive, maybe sometimes prone to violence, prone to fighting back. I think that our present moment, the Me Too moment, is a big one for women in the real world starting to fight back and take back sovereignty, the rights to their own bodies, to their lives, to their careers. And I think a lot of that is reflected in crime fiction, which again, not to denigrate domestic fiction by women or about women, but I think there’s sort of a freedom. I think for women, they often still do feel constrained. We feel limited by what we can do or achieve, and on the page we don’t. I know just from what I’ve heard from people who’ve read the Cass Neary novels talking about how they identify with this character and they’re so happy to see a character, a middle aged woman who’s going out there in the world, who has a history, who is not really ashamed of what she is, fucked up as she is, and so they can kind of go along for that ride maybe because they haven’t been able to do it in their own lives.


“Women are finding different kinds of characters to identify with in books. Characters who are more assertive, maybe more aggressive, maybe sometimes prone to violence, prone to fighting back.”

Another author who I think really pushed a lot of boundaries and pushes the envelope is Cara Hoffman. Her first novel, So Much Pretty, is just a very dark, very brilliant crime novel set in upstate New York. Kind of unlike anything I’ve ever read. It takes a total left turn about three-quarters or four-fifths of the way through the book, one of those things where I was like, “Oh my God, I totally did not see that coming.” I won’t say what it is, but that shift in the book and what happens with the central female character is really intriguing, and I think for a lot of people is very polarizing and transgressive. She has another book called Be Safe, I Love You, which is about a woman, an Iraqi war vet, who’s come back to home after serving in the war and dealing with PTSD. Again, it’s a very dark novel, a crime novel. She deals with working class characters, which you don’t see in novels. She does it really, really well, and she really pushes her characters to do things that I rarely see in books by other people.

EAG: I remember the shock I felt, reading Generation Loss, as I started to understand who Cass was. And it was such a thrill. I definitely connected with her, and I thought, “I need more of this.”

EH: When I wrote that book, it was difficult to find a publisher because people were very put off by the character. That was the feedback I got, was that people thought the writing was great and this, that, and the other, but that the character was too unlikeable, too difficult, and people didn’t want to read it. The book came out, coincidentally, the same year, within a few months of when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was translated into English. I remember a friend of mine saying, “This book reminds me a lot of your book,” and I thought, That’s really interesting, because up until that point, nobody seemed to be wanting to read about those kind of characters. As I was saying before, there are a lot more of those kind of characters around now. But it was 12 years ago, 13 years ago when I was looking for a publisher for Generation Loss. It was tough. People, they just didn’t want to see it. I was very lucky.

EAG: What was the first instance in your life that you can remember thinking—seeing something or meeting a person and thinking that is really cool, even if you’d never heard the word yet.

EH: I was very geeky. My brother, who’s a year younger than me, was always just a bit hipper than I was. He was really in the Rolling Stones, and my freshman year in high school I got him a book about the Stones. This was 1970 or ’71. I gave it to him, but I just would spend so many hours looking at the photos in that book. I knew the music, we had Hot Rocks and More Hot Rocks, we had various albums of theirs. But, there was no MTV, there was no internet back then, so I saw pictures of the Stones but it was mostly from Circus Magazine or Tiger Beat, or whatever.

Looking at them and how they dressed, especially in that late ’60s, turning-into-’70s era, it was amazing because they kind of combined the mod look with hippie stuff. Hippies were never really cool to me. I loved hippies, I was kind of a little hippie chick. But what the Stones did with that; Keith Richards wearing Anita Pallenburg‘s clothes, and her wearing his clothes, and Mick and Bianca Jagger wearing each other’s clothes. Just this kind of sense that you could shift your identity, you could shift your gender, just so easily slip from one to the other.

In the movie Performance, the Mick Jagger character, his name is Turner—and he does [turn], he’s a shape shifter. That for me was a very potent image of cool. 

EAG: It sounds like what really sparked your interest was that sense of having the agency to change.


“You see a lot of pictures of Bowie laughing and smiling and having fun. You don’t get that with Lou Reed.”

And I think both she and Bowie, you get a sense that they’re people who are constantly opening themselves up with their music. What they’re writing about, they are exposing themselves, they’re exploring things or they’re exposing them. Whereas with Lou Reed, and with the music he did with the Velvet Underground, there was always much more of a sense of things being secret, things being hidden.

There’s a really good profile of William Gibson in the New Yorker from a few weeks ago, where they quote Zero History, saying, “Secrets are the very root of cool.” I read that and I was like, Yeah. Because I was thinking about us having this conversation. And I really think that’s true. That’s one of the things that comes across with Lou Reed’s music. When he was opening himself up, or when he was opening the door a crack, on himself personally, he was giving you a glimpse of this other world in the 1960s, a world of trans people, a world of drug addicts, a world of artists. This world that existed in the city at that time and in other places, but one to which I certainly was not privy as a kid, as a young teenager, except from his music. He continued to do that throughout his career.

One of my favorite albums is Magic and Loss, which is about the death of close friends of his. But even in that, even in the title song, there is also this sense of being let in on a secret. And in that particular song, the secret is that of, how does one create out of despair? He sort of opens that door up and lets you see that. His work and his essence are tied very much into that notion of secrets, not that he himself was necessarily a secret person, but the music… And the classic images you see of him, he’s withholding something. You don’t see a whole lot of pictures of Lou Reed laughing, where you do see a lot of pictures of Bowie laughing and smiling and having fun. You don’t get that with Lou Reed.

EAG: What are some of the things, people, places, that for you are just really shorthand for cool?

EH: Thinking back in time, I would say New York, downtown, Lower East Side, in the ’70s and early ’80s was cool, in part because it was also really scary. That’s something else that goes with cool, is a sense of danger, of being slightly in peril by whatever it is. There’s something slightly threatening about things people, places that are cool. I grew up around New York, and going down to the city at that time, I never felt safe. I had no desire to live there because it felt to me like a very dangerous place. I did not want to live in a place like that, but I loved visiting it.

I haven’t been back in 10 years, but Reykjavik was a really cool place. Again, because I found it slightly sinister. I was there in 2007, and then the crash was in October 2008, and I was there again, we went in early 2009. So it was just a few months after the crash and the city was just a very desolate, sinister place. That was the Reykjavik that inspired Available Dark

London, where I live for part of the year, is a really cool place and always has been. I don’t feel intimidated by London the way I was by Reykjavik or New York City. I feel much more familiar with it. But it’s a cool place just because there’s so much going on. It’s less cool than it was, though, because it’s just been taken over by oligarchs. And everywhere you look, as in New York, you just see these symbols, these huge, mega-skyscrapers that in many instances are empty, nobody’s living in them. In that sense, I think London and New York are nowhere near as cool as they used to be. But then, nothing is ever as cool as it used to be.

I saw the Ramones’s first show in DC, which was I think in early 1976, and I brought some of my friends with me. I was like, “Oh, we’ve got to see this band, we’ve got to see this band.” We went there and I’m not exaggerating, there were maybe 20 people, 30 people there. It was in the Bayou, it was in this big space and it was just empty. We were on the dance floor right in front of the stage. There was just no one there. But it was like that with many of the bands that I saw at that time. It was a very different scene. It had not exploded or imploded yet. And it was cool, and it was fun because it was talking about secrets, it felt like a secret.


“Once things pass over into style, when they’re being commodified, they’re less cool. Or uncool.”

Within a couple of years, that shifted. It went from being a secret to a commodity very, very quickly, which is what happens. “Revolt into style,” which is the title of a great book by George Melly about cool. He quotes the poet Thom Gunn—the poem was about Elvis, but the line goes, “He turned revolt into style,” and Melly took it as the title of his book. It happens certainly with pop culture, but I think it happens with things that are cool. I think they’re at their coolest when there is still something transgressive about it. And then once things pass over into style, when they’re being commodified, they’re less cool. Or uncool.

I kick myself now because I could have known a lot more people and/or known a lot more about what was going on. But I think some of it, too, was just that as a writer, and especially when I was younger, I always felt very much outside of things, that I wanted to be outside, I wanted to have that detachment, to be the observer. I did kind of go out of my way to keep a certain distance from things so that I could observe them. 

EAG: Is that because you consciously or otherwise knew that you wanted to be able to do something with the material that you were receiving? Or was it something less complicated?

EH: I don’t know that I was conscious at that time of using the material. I was very conscious that I was very fortunate to be right there at ground zero to something that was happening. Something special was going on and I knew it and I made a point to soak up as much of it as I could, I really did. And I feel really grateful for that and also really glad that I had the presence of mind as an 18-year-old, 17-year-old, to kind of jump on that. I ended up flunking out of college after three years, basically because I was spending all my time going to shows. But I remember thinking, “Okay, what am I going to remember 30 years from now? What is going to be more important? That I study for this philosophy exam, or that I go to see Patti Smith at The Cellar Door?” There was no choice. I was like, “I’m definitely going to go see Patti Smith at The Cellar Door.” And I didn’t know that eventually it would pay off, but it did, having had those experiences and having been there at that time. But as for the detachment, I think that that is just maybe more of a personal thing. There’s a certain kind of detachment, inner detachment, that I keep or possess, whether or not I want to, that I think does serve one as a writer or as an artist. I think you do need to have that detachment.

EAG: Do you think that that sense of detachment is a little bit of a prerequisite for something that we think of as cool?

EH: Yeah, I do. I’ve been thinking about this, again, knowing that we were going to have this conversation. I think many of the images that we have of people who embody a sort of cool, and they’re loners. You’re seeing James Dean, you’re seeing Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, you’re seeing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. You’re seeing people who as icons are emblematic of detachment, and there’s this sort of, don’t come any closer, keep your distance, which is part of what makes them sexy because you’re like, “Wait, I want to be the one who’s going to pierce that veil.”

But I think in the US there is this history, this idealization of the individual, which I think has gotten us into some really bad places. It’s a whole big, complicated mythology and a whole big, politically charged mythology that America has created about itself centered on the importance of the individual. But I think that has become kind of tangled up with notions of cool.