The Rise Of Coffee — And Personal Productivity

In my quest to read all of David Liss’s novels, I finally finished The Coffee Trader, a companion novel of sorts or prequel to his Benjamin Weaver novels that explain how Benjamin’s uncle, Miguel Lienzo, became the man of consequence he is. Like all of Liss’ novels, it’s a useful explanation of some part of the financial system — in this case, commodity markets — and why it should be regulated in general (though not in this case, because that would prevent our hero from triumphing over an unworthy enemy). But it’s also a great meditation on the rise of personal productivity.

After drinking coffee for the first time, Miguel reflects:

How many times, after conducting business in taverns, had Miguel’s wits suffered with each tankard of beer? How many times had he wished he had the concentration for another hour’s clarity with the week’s pricing sheets?…The coffee’s scent began to make him light-headed with something like desire. No, not desire. Greed. Geertruid had stumbled upon something, and Miguel felt her infectious eagerness swelling in his chest. It was like panic or jubilance or something else, but he wanted to leap from his seat.

Similarly, coffee for Hannah unleashes a sense of potential, the idea that she should be able to learn more about Jewish law, that she should be able to read. The berries and the drink give both of them the sense that they’re not bounded by fate and the limitations of the body; that they can, if not entirely conquer tiredness, push it back for a time; that they can reach for greater clarity than that normally available to them. Their success in personal and private life is incumbent on them, not on God’s favor, and if they are clever enough, not the approval of their community or their adherence to artificially imposed norms.

As we know from discussions of the current recession, productivity is not a cure-all if we don’t have the resources to consume. If the workforce as a whole is much more productive, tapping into your full productivity doesn’t actually give you the sort of advantage that Miguel Lienzo got from drinking coffee (and, of course, from working as an independent operator rather than for a firm). So there’s something sort of wistful about a look back to a time when the new standards seemed full of nigh-magical promise and opportunity.