26 September 2015

A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage

Posted by Callan Bentley

standage This week’s book was a survey of human history, from the dawn of civilization to the Cold War, of the various ways that societal, health, political, technological, and economic factors drove the adoption of various beverages, and how the presence of those beverages in human society generated ripples of cause and effect, propelling advances and turns of history that led us to the world we live in. It’s a prime example of one of my favorite genres of book: the “microhistory” that uses a novel perspective to explore some aspect of history. Other exemplars include Salt by Mark Kurlansky, or Bananas by Virginia Scott Jenkins. Really, Standage’s book is six (or seven) microhistories in one, arranged in roughly chronological order from the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia where fermented gruel turned to beer, to the rise of classical civilizations in Greece and then Rome, places where wine was the drink of choice, to the embrace of distillation to make spirits, and the full blooming of the spirit making business in the New World, to the role of coffee and coffeehouses in the Enlightenment and the era of world exploration, and then a survey of tea from ancient China and India through Colonialism (including, of course, the role tea taxation played in triggering the American colonists’ revolution against Britain). Finally, with World War II and the rise of American “Imperialism,” Standage turns his attention to Coca-Cola. An epilogue explores the role of bottled water in the modern industrialized/developed world. It’s a fascinating, well-written book, full of connections at which I never would have guessed, and it really gave me an appreciation for the sweep of history that I never got in high school history classes, reading from relatively dry (pun intended) textbooks. I felt like the pacing of the book was particularly well-balanced: each topic was discussed exactly the right amount of time, without feeling like it was overemphasized. As with most of my ‘reading’ these days, really I listened to the book on my commute – a lovely time of uninterrupted concentration. There’s a great quote from the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in his Lectures on Physics that Standage’s book reminds me of. At the risk of overwhelming this brief review, I’ll quote it here:

A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

I feel that after reading Standage’s book, every time I brew a cup of coffee or crack open a beer, I’m tapping into an immense flowing vein of history. These beverages are “liquid artifacts” (his phrase) and by continuing to consume them today, we participate in human civilization. It’s a heady form of secular communion, re-enacting countless acts of beverage consumption through the past 10,000 years, bringing our species from hunter-gatherers to the sort of place where we can write blog posts about books about the intermingling of beverages and history.