Nothings stops me in my tracks as often as a gorgeous photo of a book beside a steaming cup of coffee. Kudos to all the patient souls who not only take a brief snap of their cozy moment, but take time to set it up in a lavishly bookish way. You have all been an inspiration! So much so that I started my own Bookstagram, which only showed me how hard flat-laying is. Also, until you get the right angle, the coffee gets cold. But I divert.
Reading and hot beverages go hand in hand in our modern society. We can all thank Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks and other commercial giants who have paved the way for the joint rule of A Coffee and A Book over the nostalgic, romantic populace of book lovers and wannabe writers. This union also brought laypeople to bookstores and added another layer to reading – a certain air of hedonism, of good taste and ritual.
But it was not always so.
Coffee has played an essential part of forming social habits and thus to forming civilizations. It was brought to Europe and North America from the East after disrupting, as we would call it today, a world of social and religious constraints.
First to fall under the spell of the dark beverage was the Islamic world. In the Ottoman Empire, coffee was revered for its strong taste and created a different fabric of social life. Men started to gather and talk about new philosophies, while their coffee was brewing (preparing authentic Turkish coffee is a long process, which takes skill and patience, and drinking it was a ritual to be enjoyed, not hurried), various social circles started to mingle in unseen before ways. This new habit created the basis for a more social way of life.
The English Coffeehouse – commerce and politics
Europe followed suite, drawn by this mystical import, which became a luxury item, like silk and spices. In 17th century England a new social institution arose – the coffeehouse. Different from pubs and brothels, it became the setting for political debates and commercial dealings. The new drink went well with the patrons’ interest in exotic new ventures and progressive spirit. Charles II frowned upon the rise of this new stronghold of social discourse. Because what king wants their subject spending too much time discussing his every move?
Coffee became so popular, that at some point the wives of those progressive gentlemen signed a petition against coffee, stating as reason their husbands’ inability to perform their marital duties after an afternoon in the coffeehouse. They also complained coffee made men talk too much: “they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at gossipping,”
To which the men replied with a petition of their own, saying coffee made them fart less in bed and thus – better husbands. They called the coffeehouse “the Citizens Academy”, a testament of how the new habit shaped social dynamics.
The patriotic duty to drink coffee
The Boston Tea Party was a historic moment, one of many that would escalate into the American Revolution. An entire shipment of tea was thrown overboard into the Boston Harbour by the protestors, who defended their rights as Englishmen to “No taxation without representation”. After the event, drinking tea was frowned upon and many took up drinking coffee as a manner of protest and show of patriotism.
Modern life is quick-paced and commodified. A few decades ago brand specialists brewed a small social revolution of their own, by taking coffee out of the coffeehouse and into the street. They turned it into a commodity to fit the quick pace. Just as Turkish men enjoyed their long talks over the brazier, we now enjoy running errands or commuting with a to-go cup in hand.
As we rush through busy streets, heat sleeve in place to protect us from the hot cup, we dream of a quiet Saturday, when we can indulge in a home-brewed coffee in an actual mug, combined with a good book. We fight to carve a nook of time for ourselves, but we don’t want to spend it entirely alone. Our cup of coffee is always an honoured guest.
Coffee drinking went from pulling down social barriers to bringing people together to making us crave a quiet moment in the company of a book.
A cup of coffee still holds its social power as evidenced by the busy coffeehouses and successful brands like Starbucks all over the world. But its affair with literature is something new, modern and fresh. The expertly curated instagram posts of books with coffee are the children of a honeymoon period we hope never comes to an end.