Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

There were a blizzard of short smart histories earlier this decade -- each purporting to explain the whole world (or at least a big piece of it) through salt, or the binomial theorem, or stamp-collecting, or something similarly arcane and esoteric. They've mostly ebbed at this point, since no trend lasts forever, but A History of the World in 6 Glasses was one of the later books of that wave.

Standage's background is in technology journalism; he had previously written The Victorian Internet (a history of the early years of the telegraph with a "sexy" contemporary spin) and The Turk (the story of the famous 18th century chess-playing "automaton"). But the technology in 6 Glasses is of a much older kind -- Standage here tells the story of all of human civilization through six exemplary drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.

It's inevitably a quick and superficial history; each drink gets two chapters and about forty pages to cover its particular period. So Standage writes about the rise of cities and agriculture -- along with a potted history of Mesopotamia and Egypt -- for the chapters on beer, moves on to Greece and Rome for wine, and so forth. Standage does repeat a few of his stories in different chapters, particularly covering coffee and tea, but there's enough here that the book doesn't feel padded. It's short, and clearly can't cover the history of human beverage consumption in anything but superficialities, but who would want to read the complete history of everything people ever drank?

6 Glasses is pleasant and breezy, the kind of book that goes well with a comfortable chair somewhere outdoors in nice weather and a glass of one's own favorite beverage. Standage tells engaging stories about his six chosen quaffs -- though he doesn't work very hard to link any of them to each other, so the book feels more like a collection of writings on drinking than like a single narrative -- and makes a solid case that these six, in this order, are the important drinks of man. And that's what you'd want from a short history, so 6 Glasses does precisely what it sets out to do.

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