Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things


Once upon a time we knew the origins of things: what piece of earth the potato on our dinner plate came from, which well our water was dipped from, who cobbled our shoes, and whose cow provided the leather. In many parts of the world, that information is still readily available. But in our society, even as technology makes certain kinds of information more accessible than ever, other connections are irrevocably lost.

In Glass, Paper, Beans, Leah Cohen traces three simple ...

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Once upon a time we knew the origins of things: what piece of earth the potato on our dinner plate came from, which well our water was dipped from, who cobbled our shoes, and whose cow provided the leather. In many parts of the world, that information is still readily available. But in our society, even as technology makes certain kinds of information more accessible than ever, other connections are irrevocably lost.

In Glass, Paper, Beans, Leah Cohen traces three simple commodities on their geographic and semantic journey from her rickety table at the Someday Café to their various points of origin. As Cohen draws the reader Oz-like across time and continents, she brings to life three unforgettable characters whose labor provides the glass for her mug, the pulp for her newspaper and the beans for her cup of coffee. In prose as sophisticated as it is simple, she braids the myths, lore, and history of these three simple staples and conjures an unseen world where economics, fetishization, and manufacture meet.

An elegant and inspired inquiry into the true nature of things, Glass, Paper, Beans is a classic work on the economy of everyday life.

An elegant and inspired inquiry into the true nature of things. Once upon a time, we knew the origins of things: what piece of earth the potato on our dinner plate was grown in; who cobbled our shoes; from which well, spring, or rain barrel our water was dipped. This fascinating book traces three simple commodities of the title on their geographic and semantic journey from Cohen's table in Somerville's Someday Cafe to their various points of origin.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

One of the Toronto Globe and Mail's Ten Best Books of the Year

"A minor miracle...After you read it, nothing-not even a sheet of newsprint-will seem ordinary again."
-New York Times Book Review

"Cohen's tracing of the three objects is fascinating, but what really sets it apart is the poetic beauty of the prose."
--Philadelphia Inquirer

"The book itself seems to vibrate in your hands as you discover an odd mysticism rooted in the most ordinary and most obvious."
--Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul

"These are not merely stories about production and commerce, but richly hued, intimate portraits of people whose work and lives are seamlessly integrated...Something to be savored."
--Toronto Globe and Mail

"At the deepest level, this is a book about storytelling as a mission of discovery and transcendence."
--New York Newsday

Entertainment Weekly
Absorbing investigation of the human labors behind everyday commodities.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In sparkling, nimble prose, Cohen Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World recreates the story behind the 'object' -- in this instance, glass, paper and beans, although the object could as well be a toothbrush or a nail -- and people whose livelihoods depend on those objects, a history of how the objects came to exist as well as a social account of the laborers' relationship to them and the consumer's mostly unknowing relationship in the chain. . . . .In tracing each material to its source, she delves into history we learn that toilet paper existed in ninth-century China, politics and mercantilism she brings in Marx and Thoreau here, and she and we discern that there is an essence in objects. And this difficult, enormously satisfying book reminds us also that the monetary system created our commodity world, fetishizing consumerism, which strips objects of their identities.
School Library Journal
YA--In years gone by, individuals were closely linked to the land and production methods of all the commodities for which they traded. In this well-written book, Cohen moves between such a past and the present as she examines and reflects on glass production, newspaper printing, and coffee manufacture. The narrative begins in a ubiquitous coffee bar to establish a link between liquid coffee in a glass container and the accompanying presence of a morning newspaper. From there the narrative segues to introduce an individual working in each field. Brent Boyd is a Canadian lumberman who runs his business in New Brunswick Forest from an incredibly powerful and expensively specialized motor rig. On a lower economic scale, Ruth Lamp is a middle-aged supervisor at an Ohio glass factory. In Mexico, Basilio Salinas faces new opportunities in an expanding worker-owner coffee-growing venture. As the author follows these people through their different worlds, which are in fact changing within their own spheres as new technologies emerge, Cohen constructs fascinating theories and insightful commentary on human connections with production economy.--Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Entertainment Weekly
Absorbing investigation of the human labors behind everyday commodities.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385492577
  • Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1st Currency Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 731,771
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and chosen by the American Library Association as one of the best books of 1994; and a novel, Heat Lightning.  She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children.
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Read an Excerpt


Every day this happens: We rotate into light. Light meets a band of Earth, drapes itself simultaneously across grass and waves and trash cans, awnings and snow and mango trees, gas pumps and basketball courts and steeples and iguanas, gravestones, and quarries and billboards and skin. We say of this, "The sun has risen."

Every day this happens, all over the world, for all of our lives. The earth pivots round on its axis, and every moment, from north to south, a great strip of us who have never met, and will never meet, enter the day together. The zones defined by these slices of dawn, these longitudinal coincidences, mean little or nothing to us. As boundaries, as articulations of territory, these strips of light are at least as delineated as any political border, but the communities formed by them are nonexistent. Most maps don't even bother printing such lines; those that do render them minutely: in gossamer lengths of ink, infinitesimal jottings of number and degree. If we note them at all, rarely is it in relation to ourselves, to our own imaginable lives. How many of us could report the number of degrees and minutes east or west of the prime meridian we live? Of those, how many would identify as members of a community of people who reside along that north-south strip? It is preposterous. We have not been taught to see that way.

Instead we have nations. We have provinces, states, districts, regions. Some of their borders coincide with natural features of the earth's surface; others flout them. A few borders are made manifest in barbed wire, signposts, tollbooths, gateways; many more are manifest only on paper, in the forms of maps and charters, treaties and accords, painstaking tributes to a collective imagination so strong, so encompassing, it operates as fact. The reification of political borders, of community and kinship constructed around nation and state, is absolute. It feels natural. We have been taught to see that way.

Morning occurs, regardless, in strips: a quietly, chronically subversive occurrence. Like a child who will not abide by game rules, who insists that the floor is not boiling lava and steps off the couch, morning trespasses across the boundaries we've so solemnly arranged, and there is nowhere morning does not go.

Plumweseep, New Brunswick, 45 deg. 43' N 65 deg. 32'W

The sun's advancing frontier is still somewhere out between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia when Brent Boyd wakes at half past four, accompanied by neither light nor warmth. He withdraws from the pine bed his grandfather built and exchanges twin layers of green maple leaf and wine clover quilt--the one pieced by his great-grandmother, the other by his mother--for the stiff black mantle of predawn chill, whose harshness he barely registers. This is nothing. This is Atlantic time, the Maritimes, late wintertime. He puts on his boots, goes out to start the half-ton.

The half-ton, a red-and-white Ford, sits in the driveway and heaves plumey exhaust into the air. A diesel fuel tank, glistening with frost, looms broadly up out of the truck bed. Along the side of the house, the dusky shapes of the shrubs he put in this year--mocha pine, baby princess, hen and chickens--are mottled with remnants of snow. Alone on the lawn, the little Pumpkin Sweet apple tree--also planted just this year--stands black against a less-black sky. No lights show in neighboring houses.

He leaves the engine running and goes back in through the garage doors to gather an armload from the pile of wood there--a gift Grampy Boyd makes from his own woodlots to his children and grandchildren every year. Brent carries the load up a short flight of stairs from basement to den and deposits it by the woodstove. It is enameled dark green, with gold trim and a glass door; the darkling glow of embers from last night's fire burn inside. He gives these a stir, adds crumpled newspaper and then bits of wood, coaxing up flame, and now he switches on the TV--Channel 29, the Weather Network--curious about the roads. Satellite pictures and computer-generated maps appear on the screen: alternating images of vast, curved segments of globe and intimate, cookie-cutter juttings of coast; the gray perambulations of cloud patterns, swirling jerkily across the continent like curdled milk on the surface of coffee.

Crouching near the woodstove, Brent continues to stoke the fire, which crackles and swells, and begins again to distribute heat. In a few minutes he will leave, headed for the forest and his day's work of cutting down trees. The fire's for the two he's left upstairs, his wife and his daughter, one under maple leaf and clover in the big pine bed, the other in her little white bed across the hall.

Lancaster, Ohio, 39 deg. 40' N 82 deg. 35' W

One time zone to the west, eastern time, one hour later, Ruth Lamp's work week ends. She takes a last swallow of cooled coffee and crosses the boxcar-shaped sluer office. The office, which oversees the glass factory's Select and Pack Department, is small and hardly well appointed, but it does boast a small metal sink. Ruth rinses her mug and, with a satisfied little thonk, sets it upside-down on a folded sheet of paper towel, where it will remain untouched for four days.

No bell rings to signal the completion of her twelve-hour lockshift. No machine shuts down, no motor hushes. No sign of dawn seeps into the sluer office, whose three rather opaque windows look out, anyway, on the plant floor, awash as ever in the canned glare of fluorescent lights. The line workers are on an eight-hour rotation, and the current shift didn't come on 'til eleven last night, so Ruth's departure does not even get marked by a collective mobilization, a comradely gathering up of sweatshirts and purses and empty Tupperwares, a group tromp down the ramp to the gatehouse and employee lot.

She jiggles her black pocketbook for the sound of keys, fishes them out, and hoists her bag over her shoulder. On her way out, Ruth gives a wave to her day-shift replacement, already well installed at the desk they share, phone pressed to her ear, rumply-edged pages of logbook between her fingers. The replacement closes a palm over the mouthpiece, hoarse-whispers, "'Night, Ruthie."

"Have a good one."

The other woman rolls her eyes and cracks some gum into the phone.

Across the plant floor Ruth scrupulously follows the red painted path that marks a safe passage among the moving tow motors. It forces her somewhat out of her way; she has to loop backward, toward the annealing room, before cutting over and heading for the exit, but it's a safety precaution everyone takes seriously. Around her now the tow motors maneuver sluggishly, lifting and conveying pallets of ware, their perpetual whistling pulses sounding haggard and sorrowful. But maybe it's just her, maybe it's just a projection of the state of her own self at the end of a four-day, forty-eight-hour work week.

Morning has come to her, but when she reaches the bottom of the ramp the sky is still dark, with steam from the plant stacks billowing high and white against it. She locates her turquoise Ford Ranger, starts it up. Now for four days she will not think of work. She'll go walking in the woods with her wolf, drink water from her spring, see her children and grandchildren and great-grandbaby. Do some cooking and cleaning, gardening and mowing. Maybe burn some more of that brush along her road. But first thing she'll do is sleep. If she doesn't dawdle over the back roads, she should be able to beat the sun home.

Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, 15deg.54' N 96deg.23'W

Two hours later, six A.M. central time, the sun and the fog are flirting madly high in the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur. The fog likes to pretend to give in; it gets shimmery and faint, coupling with the sun, transporting itself as it lifts submissively toward the heat--and then--suddenly it is traipsing back from the other direction, as insouciant as ever, in wavery columns like ghost-milk. They might keep this up, the sun and the fog, well until noon, when the sun will have its way at last. That is the nature of this place, this altitude. The fog lingers so longingly, for so many hours of the day, that the people who live here call it a baby cloud forest.

Above a long embankment, where the forest gives way to a small cemetery, the sun creates a stronghold. It seems to kindle among the sparse stones and the wooden crosses, painted candy colors and decked with bunches of wildflowers. The fog slinks lower, rolls down the embankment and across a dirt road to the single house standing at the eastern tip of the cemetery. It wraps its moist self around the pitched tin roof, noses through gaps between the knobby wooden slats that, nailed together, form walls, and tarries over the eight people sleeping within.

The figures lie on mats of woven palm. The mats lie on earth. The earth in here is swept daily and has been pressed so firm by generations of feet that it resembles rock and rarely ever yields to the elements, except in rainy season. The fog circles the room, spreads out, fills it, with a kind of palpable, inaudible sigh. For a moment the peace is unbroken by anything but the roosters, burros, fowl, and dogs that have been carrying on more or less all through the night at this and neighboring homesteads--sounds as familiar and inappreciable as heartbeats or wind. Then sun comes gliding triumphantly through the openings in the walls, slicing the fog with planes of gold, and wakefulness conquers sleep.

This occurs first and most volubly in the babies, whose respective mothers arise quickly to their cries. The children wake next, and then come the men. The last up is Basilio Salinas Martinez, at twenty-six the eldest and the head of this household, which comprises a burro, two roosters, some chickens, a big black turkey and several feathery little poults, a ravaged-looking, nameless dog, and eight people, who make up either one or two families, depending on how you count. Truly in Pluma, it is not always easy to say where one family leaves off and the next begins. Rather, there are many ways of saying it, a variety of equations for determining kin, and the equations overlap so that all through this mountain town the threads between families are spun from house to house. If you ask Basilio to introduce you to his family, he will blink his brown eyes consideringly a few times before asking what you mean by that word.

In Australian mythology the sun was created when men tossed an emu's egg into the sky. Hopi myth says it was created by a bright shield comprised of buckskin, fox skin, and parrot's tail. Oceanic myth says the object in question was a snail, and Tartar myth claims it was created from a sword dipped in fire.

Norse myth asserts that the sun is a spark from the sacred realm of fire, chased daily around the sky by a supernatural wolf. Ancient Egyptians believed in a golden egg laid by the chaos goose, Qeb. The San people tell the legend that the sun was once a mortal who gave out light from under his armpit; in order to make the light bigger, some children threw him into the sky, and there he grew round and shone for everyone.

The sun has been symbolized by an apple, a white horse, an ax, a chariot, a bow and arrows, a cock, an eye, a buttercup, a monocle, a wheel, a hoop, a daisy. It has signified creation, faithfulness, free will, purity, and life; also destruction, faithlessness, enslavement, poison, and fury. It has been characterized as a shepherd whose flocks are the clouds and winds, as a phoenix, as a golden boat sliding across an ocean of sky, as a protector of financiers and sultans, as the eye of God, as a spy for the gods, as a dying god that must be resuscitated each morning with an offering of human blood. It has been identified with the number twenty, the Hebrew letter resin, ethical goodness. Birds are its messengers.

The desertion and advent of the sun have occasioned interpretations of their own, with eclipses generally feared (although some North American Indian nations said eclipses signified that the sun was holding its infant in its arms), and dawns generally celebrated (although the ancient Sumerians perceived the sun as an all-seeing, stern, and vengeful judge of humanity). Ancient Egyptians believed the sun got swallowed up every night by the sky mother, to be reborn each morning from between her thighs. Ancient Persians believed the sun was a demon-chaser, purifying the earth each time it rose. According to certain aboriginal tribes, the sun is a woman whose lover resides with the dead. Every night she travels under the earth to lie with him, and every morning reascends clothed in her lover's gift: a red kangaroo skin. According to scientists, the sun is a more or less stationary ball of gas 864,000 miles in diameter burning 93 million miles from the earth; morning occurs as a result of the earth's rotation, at the moment when the sun becomes visible on the eastern horizon. Mystics associate early morning with the musical note A.

All over the earth, the morning sun has been greeted by prayers, hymns, kisses. Some names of sun deities are Mitra, Varuna, Shamash, Ninurta, Marduk, Nergal, Baal, Hvar-Khshaeta, Savitri, Surya, Babbar, Utu, Ra, Shapshu, and Helios. Heliotary, or sun worship, has been practiced for as long as anyone can tell, among as many groups as anyone knows to have existed. Neanderthals buried their dead according to east and west. Pagan ritual bonfires were held to strengthen the sun's power at each solstice, and at Inca winter solstice festivals, all fires were relit by a piece of cotton kindled in the sun's rays. Sun chariots have been found in Denmark and India; temples to the sun have been built in China and England and Peru. The Bible begins with an account of the creation of light, and traces of sun- or light-worship crop up in the contemporary appearance of candles and halos in Judeo-Christian symbols and rites. As recently as the end of the last century, the belief that the sun danced for joy on Easter morning drew British country folk to hilltops on that day to watch it rise, leap, wheel about, and change colors.

Everywhere morning comes to people, people tell themselves stories about morning.

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