As I drink my medium-roast Fair Trade Haitian coffee out of my Jane Austen mug, I listen as Michael Pollan regales me with lore about the drug I am imbibing. (Yes, caffeine is the most-used drug in the world and one we give to children in the form of soda-pop.) Coffee, according to Pollan, originated in the Middle East and some parts of western Africa. Almost all coffee plants are the peppy offspring of one plant that was stolen from Mocha, Yeman, and transplanted to the island of Java, Indonesia, which was at the time under French control. Mocha? Java? Yeah, that’s fascinating stuff, as is the rest of this two-hour original audiobook.
Once again, Pollan, the beloved and influential author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, brings humanity a riveting piece of experiential journalism. And we all benefit from the experimental experience. Against the backdrop of sheaves of research into the history and science of coffee and coffee addiction, the most engaging part of the piece is following Pollan as he gives up his morning joe for three months, just to see what will happen. What happened was that Pollan was a mess. He lost confidence and focus, to the point where he felt like he might be a little bit ADD all of a sudden. He found that ambling down to his and his wife’s favorite coffee shop in Berkeley on a morning’s walk and ordering mint herbal tea was not the same, not for his mind, body, or even social habits.
This experience of losing focus (giving credence to caffeine’s ability to bring focus, or Dolly Parton’s “cup of ambition” from the song “9 to 5”), meshes with historical fact. Pollan asserts that the Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without coffee; before its widespread use, workers took beer breaks. Workers not only became addicted to coffee, but their drink helped them achieve greater clarity and memory, enabling them to do their jobs better and more efficiently.
Caffeine isn’t all a bed of rosehip tea, however. It messes with our sleep big time. “Here’s what’s uniquely insidious about caffeine,” Pollan says. “The drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation, it is also the principle tool we rely on to remedy the problem. Most of the caffeine consumed today is being used to compensate for the lousy sleep for which caffeine bears responsibility.” A vicious cycle, and one I have no plans to break anytime soon.
Still, after listening to Caffeine, I have amended my coffee usage a bit, trying to limit my consumption to one or maybe two cups, and nothing but decaf and herbal teas after noon. I want to find a balance that allows me to sleep “like a teenager” (as Pollan raved about his coffee-free three months) but still enliven myself in the morning. Yes, I want to have my coffee (cake) and drink it, too.
As a narrator, Pollan is exceptional. His voice is amiable, curious, conversational and immersive. As Audible editor Courtney Reimer said in a review, “You can almost feel him craving that java fix right through your headphones.” Caffeine is a brisk, fun, and entertaining listen, perfect for injecting a pep in our steps in these strange, foggy times.
So I will keep on downing my cup of ambition, now armed with an encompassing and enlightening story about the black gold I am drinking. (Audible)