eBooks and Coffee Shops

“No Kindles allowed”? That was the premise of this New York Times article (“Some Cafes Bar the Door to Kindles and iPads”). That in itself probably wasn’t enough for an interesting article, since it seems to be less of a value judgment on e-book readers, than it is a drink-your-coffee-and-get-out business practice. But since Virginia Heffernan uses this as an opportunity to discuss the character and history of cafes — along with a Montesquieu reference here and a Sartre* reference there — the article is certainly worth a quick read.

What caught my attention was the mention of “the fine art of public solitude” — certainly something that carried resonance. (Who hasn’t resorted to iPod headphones to muffle the noises of neighboring patrons sharing their mutually dumb screenplay ideas while we try to read or write at the local Starbucks?). Writing and reading are generally rather solitary activities, and yet, how is that the compulsion of private activities — reading and writing — coexist in an inherently social setting like the coffee shop?

In the Age of Enlightenment Europe, the coffee shop served as a significant space for intellectual and political foment, and even as an exclusive site of the meeting of the minds (it’s a long way from the modern-day Starbucks, but the “Penny University” of 18th-century London served as a vital hub of intellectual life).

On this topic, Harvard’s always-interesting Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books (“Blogging, Now and Then”) traces an interesting historical genealogy from the blog as a form of communication as we now know it, to the early-modern preceding forms of communication which originated in the coffee shops of 18th century Paris. Darnton (while pointing out the irony of writing about the metacriticism of writing about blogs on a blog) is one of the best writers on the history and future of the book, including his collection of essays, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future.

The Los Angeles Times also weighs in on “anti-Kindle prejudice” at the coffee shop and the vagueness of the Kindle/device/computer debate. The article suggests a double standard at play — is a person sitting and reading a 1,100 page Stephen King paperback novel more or less likely to sit and take up space for hours than another person reading the same book on the Kindle?

But, as if to prove that Newton’s Third Law also applies to coffee shops and eBooks, there are at least some coffee shops which are trading newspapers for iPads to provide to customers.

* Here’s a picture of my visit to one of the famous Parisian coffee spots frequented by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (also a preferred hangout spot for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and Pablo Picaso). If you want a €10 cup of coffee, that’s the place for you. I’m willing to bet they don’t like Kindles and iPads there either.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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