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Starbucks is no place for Wittgenstein’s Nephew
An essay on the importance of coffee shops in the digital era, first drafted on Nov. 7, published on Nov. 9, 2017

In his 1982 novel “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” the Austrian writer
Thomas Bernhard spends a lot of ink on the
difficulties that cerebral guys of the literary kind (“
Geistesmenschen”, in German, something like “thinkers” in
English) have to locate the right place to read in public.  Obviously his plot is set in Vienna which can boast of a
large variety of coffee shops (“
Kaffeehaeuser”) which to this day breathe the peace and qualm of a bygone
era. And yet even in the Vienna of the 1980s Bernhard’s hero has the hardest time to find a place that matches
his needs in order to pursue his studies. While one place is too dark for extensive reading, others are too
crowded by the hipsters of the time and in yet another one the waiters are too narcissistic and obnoxious for
reasonable people to actually be able to forget about them.  In the end Bernhard resigns himself to the fact that
of this many coffee houses in Vienna there is in essence only one place and one only where the mix of light,
noise, space and comfortableness is just right for brainy guys to muse on their observations about life. In his
case it’s the Coffee House of the Sacher Hotel that he finally settles for.  

Now, if Bernhard was wrestling with this issue back in the 80s imagine the difficulties philosophical analysts of
the digital age have to find their spot in the turbulent chaos of our times.  First there is the challenge to uncover
a piece of literature that can still add relevant insights to the vast sample of interpretations that our modern day
poet is already familiar with. And if against all odds, he or she does in deed tumble on a worthwhile source of
inspiration then chances are that an adequate place of rest for a sustained analysis of subject offering is pretty
much nowhere in sight.

The difficulty large rests on the fact that the Starbucks outlets and all its various off-springs aren’t a viable
alternative here. First, the few empty chairs usually available in these joints are generally not upholstered. So it
is hard to sit on them for a protracted period of time. Then there is this ridiculous problem of the air-
conditioning at least in the megalopolis that we find ourselves in. It is usually so cold in these places that you
need to bring along a hat, a sweater and a scarf only to cover yourself against the insistent jet of air coming
from above. But even if it weren’t the air-conditioning that would lower temperatures below the point of comfort
there, the stellar presence of the uber-cool tech generation already does enough to freeze you up inside.  So
while your eyes are watering and your back is hurting, the unabashed ease of being of the
Babettes and Leas
from iPhoneland can't help but remind you of what a marginalized loser of yesteryear you really are. How are
you supposed to concentrate in circumstances like these that have your self-consciousness run amuck?

The good news however is that there are still some odd safe spaces from yesteryear left.  One of them is the
Condesa subsidiary of the Fondo de la Cultura Económica in Mexico City. The Fondo is a state-run publishing
house. Its subsidiaries are therefore set up like a library, - complete with a section for reading and for
refreshments. Thank God, they offer books from other publishing houses too, - and yes, there are even odd
bits of foreign language literature available there.

We are talking hence about a near prefect retreat for “Geistesmenschen” in an otherwise hustling and buzzling
environment.  You can sit there for hours on end without being hampered either by impatient waiters or self-
obsessed hipsters. In fact, you can even take a quick nap there, if what you are reading isn’t doing it for you.
So, you really are pretty close to heaven when you are in there.

Alas, all this is only true if the sun isn’t heating up too much. Because when that happens the management has
the huge ventilators underneath the roof switched on. And once these turbines kick in your stay on the
premises is effectively over. No sweater, no hat and no scarf will save you then from getting the shivers.  In that
case, you are really on your own.  And once that happens you may have no other choice left but to hide in the
Santa Rosa Parish church nearby. Because on days like these, this is quite likely the only place north and
south of the Rio Grande where some reasonable piece of urban calm can still be found.  …
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poetry, quality of coffee shops, the importance of coffee shops in modern
civilization, the importance of coffee shops for writers and poets