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.