Duck Duck Book

58 – history of the world in 6 glasses
12.1.2008, 8:02 pm
Filed under: social sciences

A history of the world in 6 glasses / Tom Standage.
New York : Walker & Co. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, c2005.
[MCL call number: 394.12 S785h 2005; six copies, three holds]

Being animals, humans need to drink to survive. Being social animals, we have gone to some trouble to craft rituals, traditions, and practices that rest on drinking, preparing drink, offering drink to others, and accepting drinks offered to us. Certain drinks mean certain things. In my own culture, for example: A strong cup of coffee helps us shake off sleep but also marks the beginning of the work day. Cocktails go before a meal, and milk is the appropriate companion for an afternoon cookie. Champagne, espresso, or sparkling water in an elegant glass mark special occasions. And sharing is important as well — we drink a toast at a wedding, we offer a cup of tea to a guest, we share a drink with coworkers at the end of a trying week.

Tom Standage set out to examine the history of significant drinks in different periods of Western history. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, beer. In Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors about 3,000 years ago, wine. In Europe and its colonies beginning about the 15th century, spirits. In the European Age of Reason, coffee. Shortly after that, tea. And finally, in late 19th century America, Coca-Cola. Standage explains how each beverage developed, considers why it became popular, and how it affected cultural trends. How were these drinks made? How did they come to be popular? Were they stored, shipped, or traded? In what circumstances were they drunk, and by whom? Did people choose these drinks because they held particular cultural meanings, because they were identified with strength or fertility or civilization or graciousness? It is a very compelling narrative, full of fascinating detail, and Standage displays a rare gift for explaining the development of technology and its role in commerce and culture without being at all boring.

I am frustrated, however, that he has given in to the widespread tendency to cast important developments in the history of Western civilization as universal. The book is called A History of the World in 6 Glasses. A history of the world. But it is really a history of the West. When Standage discusses the importance of tea in the history of China and the development of the tea ceremony in medieval Japan, he is providing background, not telling his central story. When he mentions that the Inca and Aztecs used quite beer-like beverages in religious ritual, it is almost off-hand, a nod to the fact that far-flung cultures shared similar elements. This doesn’t make it a bad book — on the contrary it is an excellent book. But it would have been an even better one if Standage had plainly acknowledged the true scope and focus of his story.

At the close of the book, there are two particularly nice bits of end matter. One is the notes to the main text, which are themselves written in a narrative style that acts more as an annotated bibliography for readers who have an interest in exploring the source material more fully. The end notes are helpful and readable, rare and welcome qualities for notes and bibliographies both.

The second piece of end matter is an appendix, “In Search of Ancient Drinks,” which directs readers to beverages that are as close to the ancient variety as possible. Here we learn, for example, that traditional folk beers found in sub-Saharan Africa are probably the closest modern equivalent to Neolithic beer; while King Cnut Ale from the British brewer St. Peters and Sahti, a Finnish folk beer, are quite similar to Egyptian or Mesopotamian unhopped beers. Fascinating!


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