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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 identify the best suited coffee shop to pursue their reading interests.  Obviously his novel is
set in Vienna which can boast of a large number of lush “
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 the sort of coffee house or tearoom that would exactly match his particular needs for unhampered study.  
While one bistro is too scantily lit for extensive reading, an another one is too crowded by the hipsters of the
time and in a third coffee house the waiters are not discrete enough to allow for adequate contemplation. In the
end, Bernhard resigns himself to the fact that of the many coffee houses Vienna has on offer there is in
essence only one place only where the mix of light, noise, space and comfortableness is just right for brainy
people to muse about life. In his case it’s the Coffee House of the Sacher Hotel on Philharmoniker Street.   

Now, if Bernhard was wrestling with this issue back in the 80s imagine the difficulties Geistesmenschen 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 will only 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
Colonia Condesa subsidiary of the Fondo de la Cultura Económica in Mexico City. The Fondo is a state-run
publishing house. Nevertheless, its outlets are set up like a library, - complete with a section for reading and for
refreshments, and with books from other publishing houses too,  So the Fondo de la Cultura Económica is
a near prefect retreat for “Geistesmenschen” in an otherwise hustling and buzzling megalopolis. You can sit
there for hours on end without being molested 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. When that happens the management has the
huge ventilators underneath the roof switched on. And once these turbines kick in, your continued stay on the
premises has been rendered impossible. No sweater, no hat and no scarf will then save you from getting the
shivers.  In that case, you are so much on your own that the only refuge still left for you under these
circumstances is the nearby Santa Rosa Parish church where Luis Sepúlveda, years earlier, let his  "Diary of a
Sentimental Killer" come to an intriguing end.    
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