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Superficial & Sublime?

At the end of the book, the authors face the problem that whoosh moments can sweep people along in a Hitler rally. What is to counter that danger? They argue for the calmer joys of craftsmanship. They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion. The liturgy takes patient experiment and rapt devotion:

If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself.
This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best. These skills are manifold: the skill for knowing how to pick exactly the right coffee, exactly the right cup, exactly the right place to drink it, and to cultivate exactly the right companions to drink it with. When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and of one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.

Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar. This must be what the Big Thinkers were celebrating—Charles Taylor when he said the book offers “fascinating insights about the search for meaning in our time,” Charles Van Doren when he called it “one of the most surprising, demanding, and beautiful books I have ever read,” or Vartan Gregorian when he intoned that the book “delves into the transcendent values of the classic works…. I could hardly put it down.”

Reader, put it down.

Letters

All Things Shining’: An Exchange May 26, 2011

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