Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World

Written and narrated by Michael Pollan.

2 hrs and 2 minutes.

This is not a review of Michael Pollan’s new Audible Only work How Caffeine Created the Modern World.

If I were to review the audio program, I’d sing all of its praises. I’d tell you that Pollan’s genius as the guru of all things food-related (coffee and tea are plants) is on full display in Caffeine.

Pollan has few peers in nonfiction and long-form journalism in his ability to educate while entertaining. Caffeine will help you understand the history, politics, sociology, and chemistry of your daily shot of the powerful drug that we call coffee.

Those looking for simple answers to the question of the morality of the coffee trade, or the health of a coffee habit, will not find them in Caffeine. Instead, Pollan serves up a nuanced biography of the drug we all love, enabling the reader (if fully caffeinated) to evaluate for themselves the ethical and health trade-offs of our addiction.

If I were reviewing the Audible Only Caffeine, I’d also point out what a pleasure it is to hear Pollan read his own writing. Listening to Caffeine is as close as I’ll ever get to a conversation with Michael Pollan, and I’m grateful to have spent a couple of hours in his presence.

But this is not a book review. (And it is not clear if Caffeine is really a book).

What I want to wrestle with is that Caffeine is an Audible Only production and the fact that Amazon owns Audible.

First, let’s talk about Audible Only.

In my discussion of Michael Lewis’s Audible Only The Coming Storm, I expressed my concerns about the lack of a print companion. In that piece, I wrote:

“Reading should never be a zero-sum game. Yes, I want an audiobook option for my books. But that does not mean that I don’t want there to be print and e-book options as well. I keep thinking that higher ed people should be playing a role in pushing for a diverse information ecosystem. I’m greatly worried about the monopoly position that I see Amazon creating in digital books.”

I have the same concerns about Caffeine.

A bigger worry about Caffeine is that the book – or whatever it is – is only available to Audible subscribers. I was able to read Caffeine for free as a benefit of the $229.50 that I send to Audible in exchange for credits for 24 books.

For non-Audible subscribers (and there are less expensive plans), Caffeine is available for a payment of $8.95.

Will Caffeine be available for borrowing at public or academic libraries?

I wish that I could definitely answer this question – and maybe you can help. My understanding (and I’d love to be wrong on this) is that the answer is a “hard no.”

From what I understand, Audible does not play nicely with libraries – public or academic. Is this true?

If I’m right, and Caffeine will not be coming anytime soon to your local public or academic library, then what are we to make of this? Should we be concerned when a book (if we call Caffeine a book) is only available to those with the means of paying for it?

As a society, we are all poorer when our libraries are inhibited from fulfilling their mission to broaden access and inclusion.

As colleges and universities, we lose something if the only people on our campuses who can access information are those who can pay for the privilege.

Again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe libraries will have Pollan’s Caffeine available for readers. Please let us know.

I’d also hope that a thinker such as Pollan, with an exquisitely developed ethical radar for food, might turn his critical gaze to the ethics of information. We have found ourselves in a situation where Amazon is exerting an enormous and little understood influence on our culture.

Audible is the only game in town for audiobooks. Amazon dominates digital book sales, and no book can be successful without Amazon.

I’d be curious about what Pollan would think about the costs and benefits of Amazon’s place in the ecosystem of books.

What are you reading?

Inside Higher Ed