Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Why I read it: I'm always interested in histories of the world told through specific drivers. Second Standage book, too.

Summary: A fluid history of the world.

My Thoughts: I was thrilled when I finally read the line on the bottom of the cover, under the author's name: "Author of The Victorian Internet..." I had picked up the book just for its concept, not worrying at all about who wrote it. But, as it turns out, I'm already a Standage fan. The Victorian Internet was one of my favorite books of all time, read well before I was a blogger - nay, before there were blogs. The section on pneumatic tubes alone was worth the price of admission to its pages.

Onto this book. The six glasses? Beer in Mesopotamia, wine in the Mediterreanean, spirits in the Carribean and the New World, coffee in England and France, tea in China and India, and Coca-Cola in America. Each product placement in time comes with grander themes - think coffee and enlightenment and revolution, tea and British imperialism, Coca-Cola and Americanism and globalization.

Remarkably, as the author points out, more than two millenia later we still divide ourseves along the beer/wine lines in Europe. Northern, Germanic peoples? Beer, ale, lager. Southern peoples, in the former Greek and Roman empire lands? Vino. And other traditions continue as well. Every time my wife orders "Captain with diet and lime," she's generally ordering grog, the concoction that empowered the British navy during the age of sail. No wonder she's never had scurvy. Keep up the good work, honey.

The growth of Coca-Cola from patent medicine to the second most recognizable utterance in the world (care to guess the first?) may be the most interesting journey, but that, perhaps, is because the others are generally basic themes of historical study. Coca-Cola, being current, is both understudied and fraught with company rhetoric and outright marketing myths about its origins.

I think, too, that it's pretty amazing that all six continue to evolve and change in the modern day, winemakers dropping the facade of snobbery to reach into wider demographics, beer going lite, light, or ice, and coffee, well, new coffee empires are formed every day. Change is not always a good thing, though. I survived New Coke, for instance. In the end, Standage brings it all back to the beginning, and the continuing problems of finding disease-free potable water for large portions of the world's population.

Now, as Kramer once said on Seinfeld, "These pretzels are making me thirsty..."

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