The last several years have seen an explosion of books that take a limited subject and demonstrate how it is central to the natural world or human experience. Written for the non-specialist, these works of pop journalism and history can make excellent beach reading, as with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink
and Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics
, both of which package provocative theories and fascinating anecdotes in easily-read packages. These books manage to stake out territory both beachside in summer and as arsenals of little-known facts to be deployed by their readers at parties. Tom Standage's latest entry into this genre, A History of the World in 6 Glasses
, attempts to chart world history through the story of six beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.
For each beverage, Standage provides two chapters. He tells the story of beer's relationship with agriculture, and of its roles in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. These chapters adequately extract historical information without providing as much flavor as might be desirable. Wine's role in Greece is the subject of chapter three; its role in Rome that of chapter four; with the vast body of Classical writing, Standage tells a wonderful tale of the beverage's acceptance and refinement. The chapters on spirits chart its rise from obscure alchemical process to its role in the colonization of America. For such a charged subject, and one with vast quantities of historical anecdote for Standage to distill, 6 Glasses' tale of rum and whiskey seems surprisingly flat, as though written in a great hurry.
The chapters on coffee's rise from drink of Arabs to its central role in the Enlightenment are somewhat interesting, but there is little new here for anyone who has worked through Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The chapters on tea cover its journey from Asia to Europe, and the role of tea in the British empire, including everything from the tax on the American colonies to the Opium War and Britain's subsequent cultivation of tea in India. The last section of the book, on Coca-Cola, is by far the most compelling: the author is quite at home discussing advertising, the birth of consumer culture in America, and globalism. Standage tells the story of Coca-Cola's rise from the colorful world of nineteenth-century patent medicine to its current role as a symbol of economic freedom concisely and with verve.