10 May 2012

Should I judge a book by its cover?

It should not take me over a year to read a book.

According to my GoodReads notes, I started John Leland’s Hip: The History in March 2011.  It’s been on my bedside table ever since; I finished it Monday night. 

First, that’s just plain clutter.  Shameful.  The gurus at Real Simple would not approve.

In the last week I just plowed through to the end (mainly because I REALLY want to get back to Kenzie & Gennaro!)

The history of “hip” is largely about African American culture, starting with 17th century slavery.  The Africans who were brought to the colonies were a heterogeneous population – many cultures, MANY languages.  They may have been taking orders from a white owner, but even more, they needed to communicate with one other.  That meant finding commonalities between native languages, mixed with English, to form a distinct system of communication.  African American Vernacular English (somewhat better known, if pejoratively, as "Ebonics") is a genuine dialect, not just sloppy English.  The language of the slaves could serve as a way to undermine authority.  The word “hepi” is a Wolof word meaning “to know, to become enlightened.”  If you’re “hip” to something, it means you know it… but in a subtle, cool way.  Don’t let on to The Man that you know.

Okay, I dig that.  But then Leland extends hip to the 19th century Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville), to jazz, to European Jews in America, to the Beat authors & poets, to rap.  So, if you’re subversive, you’re hip.  Hip also seems to embrace, if not glorify, those who drop out and hit the road (Kerouac), do heroin (Charlie Parker) and/or coke (Iggy Pop), or operate outside of the mainstream generally.  (Interestingly, he doesn’t see 60’s Counterculture as hip at all.  More like wannabes.  Beat Generation was VERY hip.  Hence, the Beatles.  Get it?  BEATles?  Yeah…..)  Women CAN be hip, but it’s a lot harder because, according to Leland, women partners of hipsters shoulder the non-hip responsibilities of making sure the rent is paid and the kids get fed.  Being a reasonably decent mother is decidedly un-hip.

If I judged a book by its cover,
I probably never would never have read this.
Guess what?  All of us on the web?  Doin’ our own thang?  We’re hip. Supposedly. Yup.  Me.  Hip.  Go figure.

Except that he published Hip: The History in 2004.  Before Facebook and Google cranked up.  Just a couple of years after the Napster party ended.  Shortly after the Dot Com Bubble, but before Web 2.0.  I mean, how subversive can I possibly be if Google hosts my blog (for “free”) – it’s not like I need to know a lick of html (although I do know a little, the “dos cervesas, por favor” of html).

So I guess the two ends of the spectrum today are “Hip” or “Square.”  Which one do you think I am?  I think I’m pretty square, really, but so is everyone on The Big Bang Theory, and they’re hip, right? 

At the risk of being totally bogus, it’s like Huey Lewis said: “It’s hip to be square.”

I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

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