Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coffee And The Connected History Of Everything

Everything I've been reading recently seems to be weirdly connected, which either means that some enormous underlying pattern is about to reveal itself to me, like when Jodie Foster lays out all those pieces of paper on the floor in Contact, or that I'm going nuts, like when Russell Crowe starts circling random things in the newspaper in A Beautiful Mind.

Or it could just be because I've started drinking coffee again after a whole year's abstinence. Possibly-not-coincidentally, coffee seems to be the major connecting theme running through all this reading material. So before I get hauled off by aliens or men in white coats, here's a sampling of the Amazingly Connected Things I've Read Recently:

1. An article from the Boston Globe about how living in the city rots your brain (via Extemporanea). Apparently city life not only erodes your ability to concentrate, but also your ability to resist temptation. This is apparently why people who live in cities drink more coffee, which is apparently why people who live in cities come up with more innovative ideas than people who live in the countryside, even though their brains are more fried.

(Some or all of this may help to explain the sheer rubbishness of most of the ideas conceived during the dotcom boom.)

2. The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, which readers of my last post will recall makes a lot of the fact that people drinking coffee in cities in the 18th century led directly to the massive efflorescence of new ideas that we now call the Enlightenment. Johnson in turn got this idea from Tom Standage's book A History Of The World in Six Glasses, which is next on my reading list.

3. An article in One magazine by my good chum Andrew B. Smith about George Orwell's antipathy towards the so-called Machine Age, which quotes Orwell putting the boot (not the one that stamps on a human face forever; a different boot) into the coffee-shops of the 1940s. Orwell was having none of this flowering-of-innovative-ideas nonsense; he thought that the function of coffee-shops in society was to *prevent* people from thinking, by numbing their brains with constant muzak:

"The music - and if possible it should be the same music for everybody - is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude."

Orwell's misguided pessimism about the effect of coffee-shops and piped music on people's ability to think was shared by a bunch of contemporaries including Richard Hoggart and Theodor Adorno, but I haven't been reading them recently, so they don't count for this list. But that last bit about shutting out the sounds of nature tallies very nicely with:

4. An enormous article about the financial crisis from Prospect magazine that BiB mentioned in the comments of the Wedgwood post. In it, Robert Skidelsky points out that *even* J.M. Keynes, the 'father of modern theoretical macroeconomics', liked to hear the birdies singing sometimes:

"We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and stars because they do not pay a dividend."

Fortunately the National Trust later seized upon this missed opportunity and started charging people to look at trees and flowers. But this is going off the point, which is that everything I've been reading has had stuff to say about the function of coffee-shops in society, including the book I'm currently reading, which is:

5. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which is all about how cities function as living organisms and why city planners usually get it completely wrong. It's a brilliant book and fascinating reading for anyone who lives or has lived in a big city.

Jacobs has opinions about coffee-shops as well, but they're eminently pragmatic - none of Orwell's cultural pessimism or Johnson's hipster intellectualism for her. For Jacobs, coffee-shops play a vital role in city life simply because they provide a place where people can mingle with other people without anyone's need for privacy being compromised.

(She also nicely puts the boot into Le Corbusier, dryly mocking his vision of a 'Radiant City' of soaring skyscrapers, a vision which degenerated pretty quickly into the faceless concrete high-rises of so many miserable postwar housing estates. For another great example of Le Corbusier having the boot put into him, see the character of Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh's 'Decline and Fall', but I'm wandering off the point again now.)

And with that, as though pre-ordained in some kind of grand cosmic plan, my copy of A History of the World in Six Glasses has just arrived. I must immediately go and circle the bits that are clearly trying to send me a message, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Or maybe I'll just have another latte.


ScroobiousScrivener said...

I've just read three novels in a row that featured considered or actual poisonings by death cap mushroom. (The Spa Decameron, The Secret History and The Debt to Pleasure.) Coincidence? Or is the universe trying to send me a warning? Should I go fungus-free for the foreseeable?

(Pffft. Life without mushrooms. A ridiculous notion.)

patroclus said...

Blimey, that's quite spooky, and quite specific. Maybe just avoid the old death-cap mushroom for the time being. Shun the Pizza Express Death Cap Mushroom Calzone, that kind of thing.

Timorous Beastie said...

In the course of the three or four evenings it took me to watch the old TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, I stumbled upon 2 references to it in 2 different books I was reading and 2 mentions in 2 different newspaper articles. What does it all mean?

tom said...

Yet another fine post! (YAFP?)

Someone told me yesterday about a new study indicating that people who drink moderate amounts of coffee are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

No word on whether living in cities was part of that equation.

However, the study defined "moderate" as five cups of coffee per day. If that's moderation, I might have to change my mind about the old saying, 'moderation in all things'.

I do wonder why it is that the people who already had coffee (before the Europeans came and found it) did not have their own version of our Enlightenment - or maybe they already had their own, which was quite sufficient for them.

Tim Footman said...

I'd just about weaned myself off coffee.

This week I've been working in an office with an espresso machine.


Jayne said...

Hell's bells, I've just read a book that had a death cap mushroom poisoning as well.

Better go for a coffee to calm down.

Charles Frith said...

It just so happens that my friend Bevan is the Bangkok King of Biurnal Activity & Synchronicity (Coincidence). It's his favourite topic in conversation, and lo and behold was just here in my new apartment.

He just popped out, which beautifully allows me to make an attempt at providing a view on this topic.

I've had patches of intense synchronicity in my life and noted that they occur around transformative periods in my life.

But a couple of years ago when my intake of information through RSS multiplied by a factor that I'd be too embarrased to share here I experienced the most intense activity ever and concluded that there was some logic to it.

It seems reasonable to me that when consuming more and more information, be it from real life or media such as books or the internet, the likelihood of that infromation overlapping increases.

Anyway that's how I dealt with the sheer weirdness of it all but there's a process when bloggers meet up in real life and it goes up a notch again. It's fun :)

patroclus said...

TB: I was just watching an old episode of The West Wing on DVD this evening, and in it Toby said he'd been brought up with Brideshead Revisited!

Tom: This is the thing that annoys me about people who say you should drink 'five cups of this' or 'eight glasses of that' in a day. How big is a cup, or a glass? And as you say, how strong can the coffee be? And very good point about the civilisations that already had coffee - although perhaps they didn't live in cities.

Tim: I did think of you and your love-hate relationship with coffee. Would you say you've experienced a massive efflorescence of ideas this week as a result of the presence of the espresso machine?

Jayne: *hums Twilight Zone theme*

Charles: Yes, I don't think it's any, erm, coincidence that this multiplicity of coincidences has occurred just as I've started getting addicted to Twitter. Twitter's brilliant - people provide you with fascinating stuff to read every minute of the day. But I'm all for transformative periods, so I shall watch closely for any signs of transformation in my life.

Tim Footman said...

No, but it's probably stopped me from slipping into a coma when confronted by the 13th restaurant review of the day that describes the wine list as "extensive".

Dave said...

I live in the country and don't like coffee. This probably explains a lot.

I have however skimmed through half a dozen gardening books this week - and each one of them mentioned clay.

I have clay soil in my garden.

Clearly no coincidence.

John Cowan said...

Whatever bit of knowledge you are now studying is the center of knowledge, for it leads by curious connections to all the other bits.

Boz said...

I like coffee but I also like the countryside quite a lot too. Does this make me a middle-class villain, I ask..?

My ideas of coffee houses in the 1940s is based exclusively on the scene in Brief Encounter where they have lunch in a crowded restaurant complete with string quartet. So Knobs to Orwell's theory about music.