International Coffee Day is coming up (October 1)
What is it about writers and coffee? Flaubert declared that coffee induced wit and Douglas Adams, more prosaically—but relatably—said, “The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.”
I’m not the only writer or book lover obsessed with coffee—just look at the #booksandcoffee hashtag. Or search “ASMR books and coffee.” You can find endless recordings with the sounds of pages being turned and coffee being made. Such comfort . . .
(Side note: during the pandemic when we couldn’t go out, there were days when that familiar background noise really helped.)
The one with the most coffee wins (coffee and the writing life).
Here are a few photos from my work, creative, and recreational lives. Hmm . . . a theme emerges . . .
The one with the most coffee wins, right?
In his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan writes, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the arrival of caffeine in Europe change . . . everything . . . Having brought what amounted to a new kind of consciousness to Europe, caffeine went on to influence everything from global trade to imperialism, the slave trade, the workplace, the sciences, politics, social relations, arguably even the rhythms of English prose.” He explains in this short, super interesting video.
Steven Johnson has written about coffee and creativity in Where Good Ideas Come From (book here; video here) and Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World (book here; video here). Like Pollan, he contends that coffee and coffee houses played a major role in the enlightenment as people switched from consuming depressants (beer and wine) to stimulants. Suddenly, people were awake and vibrating and hanging out in places where they rubbed shoulders, where ideas were debated—and slumbering embers where fanned into full-flame creativity.
Belgrade is a place I love where coffee shops seem to continue in this way. First, cafés are coffee shops. They don’t necessarily have food or anything else. They’re stuffed with people reading books and papers and debating them, pouring over them together, making corrections—more coffee please—and smoking; oh, yes, smoking. The no-smoking-indoors thing has not arrived in Belgrade. My favourite café was just at the end of my block. I’d get there very early when there weren’t many people and sit near the open door, to be away from the cigarette fumes as much as possible. The owner favoured 1980s music and the cappuccinos cost less than $2. With the prices, the music, and the smoke, I felt like I’d gone back in time each morning!
Balzac (52 novels, 12 novellas, 19 short stories, 7 plays) is said to have drunk 50 cups a day and Voltaire (27 novellas, 21 plays, 7 histories, 17 philosophies and letters) even more! Let’s assume all these cups were the tiny espresso ones. Still. This conjures images of appalling bad breath, jitters, hysteria, insomnia, ulcers—did they take it with sugar?—add rotten teeth. But you can’t argue with the output. At a paltry 6–10 small cups a day (4 novels, 2 short stories), I’m a complete under-caffeinated slaggard!*
*A sluggish laggard.
Coffee is a subject, too.
One of my favourite coffee moments in literature is in The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s brilliantly philosophical sci-fi novel. The protagonists travel to a distant planet and they’ve brought coffee. The local inhabitants are overwhelmed by its magical scent. “Sofia would brew some of her awful damn Turkish mud and Manuzhai would hold the cup in her hands, breathe the fragrance in and then pass it around to other guests. When the coffee cooled off, they’d hand it back to Sofia, who’d drink the wretched stuff. [We] could pay for almost anything by sharing a cup of coffee.”
Makes total sense to me!
Another favourite coffee-inspired creation is in the movie, Arrival, based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. The makers had to create a written language that would be believably different from anything human, and which could express the alien’s radically different perspective on time. Inspired by a coffee cup stain on paper, they created gorgeous, circular glyphs. You can see examples here.
But it’s not just about the creativity.
International coffee day celebrates coffee, but it’s not all about creativity. It’s also about history and fair trade. Coffee originated in Ethiopia and after spreading throughout the Arab world, came to Europe, and then everywhere. It became embedded within the capitalist economic system, with all the attendant ills: monoculture leading to vulnerability to pests and market fluctuations; the extraction and concentration of wealth up the value chain, so-called efficiencies leading to oppressive working conditions, and so on. In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel calculated that if all the real costs of production were included in a cup of coffee, it might be priced at nearly $200! This is a horrifying thought on many levels, and those hidden costs—the ones that are cast off to the environment or to small farmers—are the reason why we need fair trade coffee. It’s an attempt to wrest some good out of a broken system.
All is not as it seems.
I first started drinking coffee when I was eighteen and living in Bolivia: strong, fresh South American beans hand-ground and dripped through a coffee sock. I fell in love. When I returned to Canada in my twenties and someone served me a cuppa (it happened to be instant), I didn’t know what I was drinking! Bleh! I was spoiled from the beginning and, since then, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a coffee snob. But I have a confession: I drink decaf.
Yes, many years ago, coffee started making my heart race rather terrifying, so I quit the caffeine. Afficionados no doubt recoil at the sacrilege. And how am I to benefit from the buzz that wakes you up and makes you sharp? That makes you want to blaze out stories at 1,000 words per hour! But weirdly, my brain has the capacity to deceive itself quite nicely. I still crave coffee in the morning and after that first delicious cup—placebo!—I feel awake and ready for the day. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’ll take it!
Luckily, decaf is high quality these days. Unfortunately, it’s not available everywhere. Vietnam, for example, has strong, smooth, dark coffee gorgeousness. After just a couple of days of accepting coffee from my host family, I wondered whether my heart was going to burst right out of my chest! So, I explained my problem—not an inconsequential task, since I don’t speak Vietnamese and they don’t speak English and this was more technical than our usual conversations (but pictures, google translate, and a sense of humour can get you far).
It’s the ritual.
It’s the taste, the aroma, the rich umbers and chestnuts smoothed by the white, whorling milk. Holding a steaming mug in your palms. Sipping slowly. Waking up. Sitting in a busy café and listening to the growls of the gleaming cappuccino machine; the quiet clink of spoon on glass. Then turning back to your book or the piece you’re writing.
It’s the wondrous in the absolutely quotidian. Satisfying ritual.
So, on October 1 and every day: here’s to coffee!
Some favourite coffee moments:
Joy has a no-nonsense, often funny voice that comes through as clearly as a friend chatting with you. You’ll enjoy spending time with her! She encourages readers to take an attitude of “boundless curiosity” towards themselves.
“Instead of backing away from what you fear could be a bottomless pit, step forward with a mind open to making fresh discoveries about yourself. After all, who is a more fascinating creature than you?”