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GLASS, PAPER, BEANS by Leah Hager Cohen

GLASS, PAPER, BEANS

Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things

By Leah Hager Cohen

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-385-47819-4
Publisher: Doubleday

 Lingering over a cup of coffee and a newspaper at Boston's Someday Cafe, Cohen (Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, 1994) immerses herself in a Proustian rumination on the origins of the familiar: glass, paper, coffee beans. ``Who made this thing? Will I ever meet them?'' Cohen traces each of the three objects back to its beginnings: The paper her Boston Globe is printed on started out as a tree in New Brunswick; her glass tumbler came from a factory in Lancaster, Ohio; her designer coffee is brewed from beans grown by a cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico. Simple enough, tracking these items back to their source; but Cohen goes much farther. She composes a marvelous social history of each object, looking back over the millennia to their rudimentary beginnings and up to their appearance in a modern coffee house. She learns that each now common item was once ``as gold . . . a thing of wonder'' whose rarity was ``constructed, imposed'' by political and religious powers. Demystification did not occur until the Industrial Age, when mass production and modern transportation made them accessible, inexpensive, profitable commodities. Cohen's examination of the discovery, or invention, of glass and paper and the development of coffee may seem skimpy to experts in each field. Her portraits of the workaday lives of logger Brent Boyd, coffee grower Basilio Salinas, and glass-factory night supervisor Ruth Lamp are ploddingly detailed and personal. Those passages--how Brent's harvester operates; what Ruth packs for lunch; the maze of Basilio's extended family--pale in comparison to her historical research. But it is her fascinating review of the myths, anecdotes, and legends surrounding the origins of these items that is the highlight of the book. Cohen's discourses on time, money, and ``commodities fetishism'' will tire a few readers, but she nicely ties it all together for those with patience.