Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Title: A History of the World in 6 Glasses
Author: Tom Standage
Genre: Non-fiction/ History


The rise of six beverages coincides with different stages of Western Civilization.

Beer: The Dawn of Cities in Mesopotamia
Wine: Greek Culture
Spirits: Colonization in the Americas
Coffee: The Age of Reason
Tea: British Imperialism
Coca-Cola: American Globalization

There are twelve chapters in total, plus an introduction and epilogue.  Each drink has two chapters a piece.  The first chapter documents the discovery/ invention of the drink as well as how it becomes a popular phenomenon.  The second chapter showcases the power and consequence of the drink, the role it plays in war or revolution.

Spirits, for example, came about due to the adoption of the Arabic process of distillation and really started to thrive when it was discovered how molasses from sugar plantations could be turned into rum and used in the slave trade.  Later, rum helped along the American Revolution as a tax on molasses--which America cheaply distilled--was one of the earliest and bitterest grievances America had with Britain.


The strength of this book is its accessibility.  The history is broad and expansive and pretty much covers everything you should have learned in public school.  In a way, it's a nice refresher course.  The twist is that these events are viewed from the lens not of kings and explorers, artists and inventors, but rather six popular consumer products.  And that opens the history to all sorts of interesting factoids.

For example, I love coffee, but I had no idea where it came from or how it grew to be so popular.  In this book, not only did I learn such information, I also got a glimpse of Enlightenment "Internets," coffee houses where thinkers grouped together to pass on information.

One gripe I had about the book, however, was its clear Western bias.  "The history of the world" apparently means the history of Europe and America, with a nod to other cultures tossed in.  Tea, for example, is a quintessential eastern beverage with deep roots in China and Japan, so I was surprised to find it the second to the last beverage in the book.  The author chose to tie the "rise" of tea to the rise of the British Empire, rather than exploring tea in an eastern context.  I was a little disappointed by that.

Overall, though, the book was enjoyable, interesting, and easy to read.  The structure worked well, and the author succeeded nicely at fusing Western history with a shot of alcohol and caffeine.

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