Wake up and read the coffee

I drag into Starbucks on five hours of sleep, squinting to block out the glare of morning. My head feels too small for its throbbing contents; my tongue is made of cotton. The ambient noise of conversation and coffee being poured seems unbearably loud. Every cell in my body is a silent scream.

Then the first sip. The thick, achy fog behind my temples begins to lift. Ahhhh. The second sip. The clouds recede, and my eyes clear. The third sip. I may live after all. Newly alert, with the clarity of one who has been given a second chance, I glance at the cup that has saved me, expecting the familiar Starbucks logo.

"Today our schools are just as segregated as they were in 1969," it says on the cup. "Race is the biggest challenge we face, and we have proven unequal to facing it."

What? Do I need to be scolded by NAACP board chairman Julian Bond before I'm even functioning? I glance over at a fellow caffeine addict. Her cup tells me, "Everywhere, unthinking mobs of 'independent thinkers' wield tired clichs like cudgels, pummeling those who dare question 'enlightened' dogma."

This blast is from the editor of the National Review online. Have a little rage with your coffee.

"Without serendipity there are no surprises," announces another nearby cup, under its appropriately foamy explosion of whipped cream.

Starbucks' coffee-cup philosophy is part of a new trend that glorifies all things nerdy: reading, writing, philosophy and heated political discussion. The uncool has become cool. Serious is the new silly.

Coffeehouses, once grimy holes in the wall where impoverished idea mavens sat around splintery tables parsing Schopenhauer over espressos, now are clean community gathering places with low-cost wireless access for everyone who can pay more than a dollar for a cup of coffee. Clean-cut students go over logarithms on their laptops while young business interns study spreadsheets.

Bookstores, once small emporiums run by down-at-the-heels but passionate proprietors, are now, in the form of Barnes & Noble and Borders, places for daylong family outings.

Junior hangs out on the couches in the children's department, reading adventure books, while Dad cruises the sports magazines and Mom browses the self-help section, looking through the diet books while she sips her Frappuccino and listens to piped-in Vivaldi.

Bookworms, those intense unattractive types who made up for their geekiness with brains, wore thick glasses and lived in their imaginations, have now become "readers." Even movie stars wear glasses now. Higher education is hot. Getting a child into a good college is every parent's dream.

Everyone talks about reading, and almost everyone has some philosophy of life to expound.

Instead of grunting on a StairMaster or listening to oldies on the treadmill the way we did a few years ago, we chant Sanskrit verses about universal peace in yoga classes. Book groups have replaced coffee klatches. Community service is the new hot extracurricular. The mellow, hedonistic Beach Boys have been replaced by the politically aware U2. Live 8 is the new rock 'n roll.

The new seriousness abhors conventional advertising. Hip companies have replaced their name logos with little life lessons.

"July about your age?" asks Kenneth Cole's logo this month. "July to get out of jury duty? July just because you can?"

Just a few years ago, logos were in; now, luxury products are identified by subtler, more serious signs: the aspen leaf on L.L.Bean's yoga-wear, Patagonia's motto, "Life Is Good," the stylish Lexus "L," the discreet strip of red on Prada's expensive Italian shoes and bags.

Unfortunately, the new seriousness sometimes is as thin as the paper it's written on. Starbucks sells coffee if you insist, but most people are there for drinks that are more ice-cream soda than espresso. Barnes & Noble sells books, but it's the candy, magazines and toys that everyone seems to be buying. I have a friend who says she reads everything. But when I borrow a new book from her, I often find a bookmark on page 10.

Many book groups seem to veer away from Tolstoy or Dickens or Melville and focus on lightweight books written for book groups, complete with group reading guides.

Is seriousness just a fashion that will soon go the way of Uggs, Magic cards and chick lit? I hope not. It's nice to be in fashion, but whatever happens, I'll always be a nerdy bookworm. As Deepak Chopra taught on my coffee cup this morning: "The secret of attractiveness is to love yourself."

Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Domestic Bliss will return next week.


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