In The Best American Essays 2004, In his essay "Against Cool," Rick Moody spends 32 pages making it absolutely clear that he doesn't even know what cool is. Not counting 2 pages of footnotes.
Moody begins his long essay by assuring the reader that he himself is not and has never been cool. But I don't think a person can judge his or her own level of coolness. One doesn't say, "I'm cool!" or "I'm not cool." One recognizes it outside of oneself, and says, "She's so cool!" or "Hey, man, that wasn't cool." In his song "Life's Been Good," Joe Walsh remarks, "Everybody's says I'm cool." But he gives the impression that he definitely considers the possibility that "everybody" says that to him just because he's a rock star. The whole thrust of the song is Walsh saying that he knows that he is lucky, that he doesn't claim that he has earned every penny he has by good old American hard work and grit, or by being a genius. He may be tremendously hardworking, and, at least in my opinion, he is a musical genius. But if the impression given by "Life's Been Good" is correct, he doesn't go around patting himself on the back for his success. He just gets on with it. Which is pretty cool.
What is cool? It's kindness, openness, quiet gentle awareness of whomever or whatever is beautiful or touching or edifying or otherwise cool in the moment.
In his Introduction to this 2004 volume of essays, guest editor Louis Menand says that an essay is good when the pain of not continuing to read it would outweigh the pain of continuing to read. It was around that point that I stopped reading Menand's Introduction. I found Moody's "Against Cool" quite painfully bad from its title to the very last word of its very last footnote. Moody says we should abandon the use of the term "cool" -- with the exception, I assume, of continuing to use it to describe ranges of temperature.
I think that's just not cool.
In The Best American Essays 1994, guest-edited by Tracy Kidder, Cynthia Ozick has an essay entitled "Rushdie in the Louvre," in which she, ostensibly, describes meeting Rushdie in the Louvre, after Rushdie has been elected a member of the Academie Universelle des Cultures. But only a handful of fragments of sentences spoken by Rushdie during that meeting held in the Louvre in his honor make their way into Ozick's essay, which has much more to do with the Louvre and terrorism and Henry James and Zola and Rushdie's security detail, which was extremely extensive at the time, than with Rushdie. I don't mean that all of those other subjects added together are given more space than Rushdie, but that each of them is given more space. I feel cheated by the title of Ozick's essay, which is pretty dull except when those few fragments of Rushdie's sentences light it up the way lightning lights up a dark cloudy sky.
Perhaps Ozick would have come up with a better essay if she'd concentrated on terrorism, given the essay a title such as "Terrorism," begun it with a short paragraph about how she met Rushdie at the Louvre, and then gotten on with the actual subject on her mind. At least then the reader wouldn't have been disappointed by an essay with a thoroughly misleading title.
By stark contrast, in the same 1994 volume of officially best American essays, Paul Theroux's "Chatwin Revisited" is actually above all about Bruce Chatwin, Theroux's deceased friend and fellow travel-writer, and it's actually quite good.