Starbucks, Zombies, and Texts from Jane Eyre

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How does Jean Valjean take his coffee? Does Dante prefer cappuccino to a macchiato? These are the questions that keep me up night, and thanks to Literary Starbucks, I can finally find my answers.

“Drinks are Up for Your Favorite Authors and Characters,” reads the site’s tagline. Spinning off the popularity of coffee house culture in the modern literary scene, this blog re-imagines some of literature’s greatest figures and places them in the context of a modern day Starbucks. Three college students came up with the idea this September, and describe the impetus for the project on their website. “One day we thought, what would all of history’s famous authors and characters order if they lived in modern times and went to Starbucks? The rest is history.”

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

The blog quickly garnered positive response, with floods of new readers making requests for their own literary favorites. Authors from Milton to J.K. Rowling have had their turn with the Literary Starbucks barista. In the month and a half since it’s inception, the blog has received attention from various media outlets, and just recently reached 25,000 followers.

The popularity of Literary Starbucks makes me wonder what it is about anachronism that draws people in. An anachronism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is anything that exists out of its proper context of time. In many cases, it’s an error on behalf of the author. This definition doesn’t account for intentional anachronism, and the comical juxtaposition that so appeals to the modern reader. There’s something compelling about seeing the canon of the past clash with the present.

The popularity of literary reboots and remixes can attest to this: just take a look at the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified Regency Era in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Mallory Ortberg’s new Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. Grahame-Smith’s proper English zombies have become so popular that a film adaptation is in the works, and they will be shuffling to big screens in sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, Ortberg’s new book is sure to draw flocks of new readers to her website, The Toast, where she habitually juxtaposes the old and new with a charming irreverence. Ortberg cites Scarlett O’Hara with a cell phone as the inspiration for her book, but no literary or historical figure is immune to her anachronistic gaze.

The popularity of anachronism isn’t so much a literary phenomena as much as it is a cultural one. The creators of this media will admit that their success comes at least in part from the gimmick. Still, it’s interesting to consider why the gimmick works. (Maybe in this modern age, readers have become so desensitized to the accessibility of media that long-beloved characters no longer evoke any sympathy or understanding. Maybe readers have become cynical and lazy, and this recycling of media signals the death knell for literature.) Of course it doesn’t. This has been going on for centuries. Shakespeare’s Roman plays were performed in modern Elizabethan/Jacobean dress, for example, and I won’t even attempt to navigate the rabbit hole that is anachronism in Renaissance art. Even in cases of accidental anachronism, the inclusion of contemporary details forged a connection with the audience which might not have existed otherwie.

UntitledAnachronism might even inspire otherwise uninterested readers to take a second look at a classic. I remember feeling mostly apathetic toward Shakespeare during high school, until I discovered Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.” Perhaps it was the late 90’s aesthetic, or the gun-swords, or Leonardo DiCaprio, but something about this adaptation clicked with me. When Abraham asked, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” I found myself actually caring about the answer. After that, whenever I struggled to connect with one of Shakespeare’s characters, I could try to imagine them in a modern context, and that would give me an angle into the play.

Intentionally anachronistic works aren’t going to win prizes for originality any time soon, but they still occupy a worthwhile niche in the literary market. At worst, they’re gimmicks, but at their best, they can be gateways. Our fondness for blending past and present is a good sign. It means we’re still curious and constantly looking for new ways to process literature, and to find reflections of ourselves in the classics. If that means Milton starts ordering Frappuccino from Starbucks, so be it.

Do you think that modern adaptations have value that cannot be achieved by the original version? Have you ever connected with a modern adaptation? Is intentional anachronism valuable, or is it the junk food of the literary world?




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One Response to Starbucks, Zombies, and Texts from Jane Eyre

  1. boldricke15 says:

    I absolutely agree that while anachronistic works may be gimmicky, they provide a valid way for readers to connect with pieces that today seem out-of-touch and difficult to access. It’s funny that you mention The Toast blog and Romeo + Juliet specifically, because I have equally strong but opposing views on those two works. I think the “Texts from…” feature is absolutely brilliant, because it’s hilarious, but more importantly it requires the reader to have some prior knowledge of the literary subject, otherwise it’s just not as funny. It acts as a supplement that further endears the author in discussion to the reader, and in fact every time I read one of those posts I always end up going back and finding some of the original works as well, which is, after all, a primary goal of adaptations: to celebrate the original. Contrastingly (and I recognize this is a totally subjective matter of opinion), I thought Romeo + Juliet was lazy. It seemed to me that the director took a cast who’d learned Shakespeare’s version, dressed them in Hawaiian shirts, dumped them on a Miami beach and called it innovative. It’s the same play in a nonsensical setting that doesn’t add anything to the original themes or character developments. After seeing that movie, I didn’t personally feel like I had any new kind of perspective on or access to the basic story, and I didn’t feel any great need to go back and read Romeo and Juliet. That said, it was probably just an unappealing vision to me specifically. I don’t like the beach anyway. If Romeo + Juliet makes Shakespeare more accessible to you, then by all means, it’s a valuable work as well.

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