History of the World in Six Glasses

The following post is a book review for my Western Civilization on a book called “History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage. A good read (despite me not really finishing the book). 

Written by Tom Standage, “A History of The World in 6 Glasses” stays true to its title by telling the origin and the impact that six beverages had in our world. And this of course is typical of Standage, who has built himself a reputation for informing readers of the origins of certain subjects such as: “The Victorian Internet” and “An Edible History of Humanity”.  Standage begins the book by diving deep into the depths of history, from Beer to Coca-Cola and makes readers thirsty for knowledge, and a nice cold one.  Standage’s main point in writing this book seems to be simple: essentially that these beverages, respectively, while still enjoyed today are meaningless without knowing the story behind it, because only then can it be truly appreciated for its value.

After reading the first chapter, the reader can get a basic idea of why Standage wrote “History of 6 Glasses”. The idea of what Standage was trying to say to this reader was that today’s modern drink is no more a commodity than the ice to keep it cool or the sugar to make it sweet and most people do not have the particular interest for some of these drinks like beer, yet the history behind beverages like beer should change the skeptic’s mind. In ancient times, it was believed that “beer was a gift from the Gods…Egyptians, for example, believed that beer was accidentally discovered by Osiris, the god of agriculture and king of the afterlife” (Standage 19). But of course, Standage did not stress the importance of cold drinks, but hot beverages as well. Tea he writes in comparison to beer “did not gently dull the mind but sharpened it, thanks to the presence of caffeine. Tea kept workers alert on long and tedious shifts and improved their concentration when operating fast-moving machines” (Standage 200).

The evidence supporting his argument is revealed in almost every chapter. For example: Standage’s argument about beer as stated in the previous paragraph may seem a bit far-fetched but nevertheless is supported early in the first chapter as a necessary item to have in order for civilization to turn out the way it did: “beer helped to make up for the decline in food quality as people took up farming, provided a safe form of liquid nourishment, and gave groups of beer-drinking farmers a comparative nutritional advantage over non-beer drinkers” (Standage 22). And each drink that came afterwards became more and more significant with society; take wine for instance which was thought of as a drink dubbed only for the sophisticated because Plato, the famous student of Socrates, “saw drinking as a way to test oneself by submitting to the passions aroused by drinking: anger, love, pride, ignorance, greed, and cowardice” (Standage 65).

Standage also seems to be not necessarily irate, but definitely disappointed with the fact that beverages like tea, have become a commodity when once upon a time, “sipping tea in small cups – ‘not bigger than thimbles’, according to one contemporary account – caught on almost immediately among the aristocracy” (Standage 189). And drinks like soda which have become for lack of a better term, sugary death traps for civilized society today, were once “a specialist medicine and ended up in widespread use as a refreshment, with its medical origins granting it a comforting underlying respectability” (Standage 230). Standage truly makes an inarguable point with this book.

However with that said, Standage does not write the book with the attitude of condescension to one who does not appreciate or know the origin of the beverages, so to speak. In fact, he humbles himself and does not express doubt in his knowledge but rather a sort of speculative tone:

“The idea that beer provided some of the impetus for this dramatic shift in the nature of human activity, after millions of years of hunting and gathering, remains controversial…although the origins of this ancient drink [(beer)] inevitably remain shrouded in mystery and conjecture, there is no question that the daily lives of Egyptians and Mesopotamians, young and old, rich and poor, were steeped in beer”  (Standage 23)

So while Standage does present some inarguable statements, he has well prepared himself for criticism and therefore uses a great deal of evidence to support his arguments but still leaves room for the reader or critics to form their own opinion.

To argue with Standage however is pointless because the arguments he makes are without a doubt convincing. After telling the origin and importance of each beverage, Standage successfully ties it all back to the source of the drink itself: Water. Though not as sweet or rich in taste like the other six beverages told in the book, originally water was altered into these different drinks at first the water was filled with bacteria and “only when the micrological basis of water contamination began to be unraveled in the nineteenth century did it become feasible to tackle a problem that had bedeviled humans for centuries: maintaining an adequate supply of freshwater” (Standage 267). In other words, Bottled Water, became more of a luxury to have than regular water because of how scarce it was to have decontaminated water that consumers would feel safe drinking. And if it were not for the water, we would not be able to have the six drinks Standage writes that make our world the way it is, and though they are a luxury, we do not treat them as such.

Unfortunately for myself, I have not read many books to compare this too, save for one book that had to do with Tea. Standage’s arguments about Tea went hand in hand with the book I read, but the arguments made in that book were more exacerbated on how Tea was smuggled and treated as a luxury only the rich could consume and for the poor to only dream about. However this book successfully addresses six of the most popular drinks known to humankind today and should not compared because of the originality and thought placed into this book.

With that in mind, many people could appreciate a book like this, especially those who are avid drinkers or just have a knack for history. After reading this book, one cannot look at their favorite beverage the same way because Standage brings to the reader, a newfound appreciation for their drinks and makes the reader realize how lucky they are to have such amazing and tasty drinks to share with our friends and family. These beverages to the ones who are unaware of how special they are, only look at these drinks as drinks; almost like someone seeing a glass half empty but once they adjust their lenses notice their drink is not half empty, but half full and waiting to be finished so it can be refilled in order make more history.

-Mr. Writer

Originally Written on the 24th of November at 8:20 P.M. 

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