Starbucks is no place for Wittgenstein’s Nephew

An essay on the importance of coffee shops in the digital era

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 their presence.  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 better even 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, the stellar presence of the uber-cool tech generation already does enough to freeze you up inside.  So while your eyes keep watering and your back is hurting, the unabashed ease of being of the Babettes and Leas from iPhoneland can’t help but remind you what a marginalized loser of yesteryear you really are. How are you supposed to concentrate in circumstances like these which 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 then save you from getting the shivers.

In other words, you are very much on your own once you’ve been blown out of the Rosario Castellanos library.  In this sad case you may have no other option 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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