Iain Gately, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (Gotham Books, 2008)
I may be eight years removed from graduating from UBC with a history degree, but that hasn’t stopped me from continuing to read up on my chosen field, even if my career path didn’t actually go in that direction.
Recently, I’ve started to read overarching socio-cultural histories of certain themes, such as travel and alcohol, which leads me to this one I’ve just finished by Iain Gately. Drink starts at the very beginning of human civilization and recounts how alcohol has been a part of human history ever since. From its initial discoveries,through antiquity and medieval times, all the way to exploration, industrialization, and globalization, booze, according to Gately, plays a central role throughout. Even the experiments with temperance and prohibition in the UK and USA in the 19th and 20th centuries couldn’t halt that progress.
Intriguing as it is that alcoholic beverages have contributed to many historical events, it seems idealized or fantastical that booze alone contributed to such events. Gately portrays it that way, and it works in the context, providing some credibility to the pivotal role of alcohol. There is certainly an emphasis on modern, Western history, as more than two-thirds of this book covers the 18th century onward. There was one chapter devoted to Westernization of Asian drinking habits in the mid-20th century, but sadly, not much else.
Gately also takes some time to look at the drinking habits of various practitioners of art over the centuries. Dutch painters, Romantic poets, French artists, and even rappers’ love of cognac and Cristal are all mentioned. And it’s not all good times, either. Gately devotes some pages in the later chapters to combat the darker side of alcohol consumption, which led to the formations of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the ongoing saga of the health benefits of alcohol consumption, its promotion by (mainly) winemakers, and the US government’s two-faced attempts to prevent such promotion despite the growing evidence.
Drink, while thick (at almost 500 pages), certainly makes for a great reading companion to that glass of wine or pint of beer. It also provides, for me at least, a new perspective to the established history and adds that cultural dimension that was lacking in the histories I was studying all those years ago.