Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The History of the World in Six Glasses

Beer.  Wine.  Liquor.  Tea.  Coffee.  Coca-Cola.

In six individual essays, author Tom Standage explores the impact on politics, geography, and culture caused by each of these beverages.

Built on many vignettes of history, The History of the World in Six Glasses reads like a textbook comprised of well-polished and researched informative essays.  I coudn't help but think that one section of this book will show up on an SAT someday.  Even though the book is filled with bits of narrative and some persuasive combinations of information and story, I felt as a reader at arm's length from the writer--and this was ok as I wasn't expected to be propped up on Standage's knee and told a story.

What I did get was a tightly constructed history lesson that did not disappoint to fascinate me--I kept turning pages to understand, and I kept turning pages to hurry to the next vignette:

The reason why beer is the staple in northern regions and why wine blossomed in the southern regions.

Why wine became the social drink with class and refinement.

The role whiskey played in the formative years of America and how it embodies all that is American.

The assistance coffee played in the improvement in work production as Europe and America went industrial, as well as the new political and social worlds created by the blossoming of coffeehouses as an alternative to bars and taverns.

The corrupt leveraging of tea within the politics of England...and its political and social impact on China (who suffered for decades from the results).

The mistaken assumption about American's drinking more coffee over tea.

(As an aside I barely grazed the surface by providing those examples above.)

The final essay focused on the rise and entrenchment of the iconic Coca-Cola company--the reader is just hit with fascinating fact after fact as Standage traces the rise of Coca-Cola with America's transition from an isolationist country to one who intervened in the politics of the world.  Wherever America was, we learn so was Coca-Cola.  It followed our troops around the globe (and purveyors of Coke were even granted military rank at one point) and was among the first items handed to East Germans as they passed through the Berlin Wall.

Included here are all of the associations that our enemies have with America--the Nazis are said to have printed propaganda stating that Americans have proven to be only good for two things: chewing gum and Coca-Cola.

The stories pile atop of one another and are so compelling that I will absolutely be recommending this to my father (a retired history teacher) and I know I will be taking repeated peeks inside the book over time just to enjoy the vignettes again and maybe catch a nuance I hadn't on a first read--especially in the complex and politically embroiled essay on tea.

The book concludes with one final though--a chapter on water.  Where we go from here as a civilization is inextricably tied to fresh water.  Water has become the new Coke--in countries with running tap water, people are willing to pay more per ounce of water than gasoline.  Even though it has been proven in scientific tests again and again, bottled water is no more safer or palatable than tap water--yet we pay up to 20,000 times more a bottle of water than it costs us to run the water in our own homes for several seconds to fill up a glass.  Add to this, the disease, death, and strife caused in nations where water is not readily available.  Add to this the fact that of greatest concern to our exploration of the universe is our search for water on other planets. Water is the next beverage which will absolutely shape the course of our existence.

Fittingly, the book ends with water and much like a well-crafted essay, the book leaves the reader with something to think about...actually many many many wonderful things to think about.

It is appropriate that I read this over the holidays as the information and vignettes collected here are an absolute gift.

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