Coffee in Literature

Author: Rob   Date Posted:7 October 2013 

It’s a safe assumption that the first thing any writer does before they sit down to work is place a hot cup of coffee within easy reach.

While coffee won’t necessarily make every writer great, it arguably makes every writer a better writer. Sometimes, they give coffee the credit it deserves. At other times, coffee inspires a line or two in a great work of literature.

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of history’s greatest composers, composed his Coffee Contata for a performance at Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig in the 1730s. “Without my morning coffee”, he wrote, “I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.” It’s a line any coffee lover can relate to as they prepare their morning coffee.

Honore de Balzac (1799-1859) was one of France’s greatest writers and his collection of short stories and novels, The Human Comedy, is considered one of history’s greatest works of literature. Balzac openly gave coffee its due when he wrote: "As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move...similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle." Balzac was such a coffee aficionado, in fact, that he wrote an essay in praise of his favourite beverage. In The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee, he wrote that under coffee’s influence, ideas “quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink - for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

Other writers make reference to coffee for the vivid imagery attached to its use. For example, in A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami wrote: “There was a small coffee shop near the university where I hung out with friends. It wasn't much of anything, but it offered certain constants: hard rock and bad coffee.” Can’t you just put yourself in that picture and feel what the character was feeling when she “hung out with friends” in the cheap but sociable coffee shop near her university?

John Cheever was one of America’s greatest short story writers. In O City of Broken Dreams, he wrote eloquently about how coffee can add a touch of welcome magic to life, even in a city of broken dreams: “The Malloys found their way, that afternoon, to the Broadway Automat. They shouted with pleasure at the magical coffee spigots and the glass doors that sprang open.”

Unfortunately, most cafes and coffee houses today frown on having a handful of customers hanging out all day drinking coffee while they feverishly work on their manuscripts. Vienna, Austria may be an exception to that rule if Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is to be believed. According to him, a Viennese Coffee House is “a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” The practice may not be great for the proprietors’ profits, but arguably is at least partially responsible for Vienna’s reputation as one of the world’s most artistic and cosmopolitan cities.

Is there a book inside you just bursting to come out? If so, you know where to start -- with a piping hot cup of coffee from your Lavazza espresso machine.


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