Brief Commentary: Iain Gately’s Drink

Drink: A Cultural History of AlcoholDrink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately

Gately writes an engaging and intriguing history of one of the very few cultural (near-)universals: drink. While the book is perhaps over-long, it never feels plodding, yet its narrative is also not something that compels the reader to keep reading–one can taste and sample at will. Too much can be overwhelming, as Gately packs the information in this book tightly, and it feels like a glass overflowing at times. Perhaps subconsciously, his work began to take on the character of his subject matter, then, and we as readers need to take it in this way: a work to be savored and enjoyed, and not something we can just run through without our heads spinning.

If there are any complaints about Drink, they are related to the book’s deep focusing on the effect of alcohol on the development of the Anglo-American world over the last 300 years; but, this is not surprising considering Gately’s own heritage, and one has to choose something to focus on. Continental Europe and the Far East get a fair shake, all things considered, and they figure as interesting counterpoints to the story of the English-speaking peoples’ relationships to Bacchus.

The book excels in several places, though, and the book deserves reading by both those interested in alcohol as a cultural phenomenon, and those interested in several other things, too:

1–Gately is able to use alcohol to provide one of the clearest, most succinct, and fascinating histories of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages I’ve yet encountered, and in so doing he reminds us of how interconnected Western and Eastern cultures once were–something we should consider more seriously in our own day.
2–As he presents it, alcohol had just as profound an effect on the establishment of modernity as the horse or gunpowder, with the emergence of the European colonial powers in the 15th and 16th centuries being deeply tied to drink, its usefulness, its enjoyments, and its potential for profits (slavery, for instance, is shown to be at least as much a consequence of the rum trade as anything else).
3–Drink’s antimicrobial qualities form a subnarrative throughout the work, and Gately insinuates that much of the development of modern science owes much to these qualities, and the attempts to replicate and understand them–and how the conflicting information we receive about alcohol even in the 21st century shows science to not be the perfect, stable thing we often erroneously credit it as being.
4–Finally, and most interestingly to me, Gately examines the many different attitudes towards alcohol that have existed throughout civilization. While he gives a fair shake to the attitudes, ideas, and feelings of ‘drys,’ Gately ultimately comes down in favor of the moderate, enjoyment-focused, and life-affirming use of alcohol, and he shows that when government or cultures try to deny individuals the pleasures of Bacchus, it only removes the Dionysian pleasures, and exacerbates the madness and danger of the god and his followers.

A lovely, enjoyable, though somewhat narrowly focused and at times overwhelming book, that is about economy, capitalism, colonialism, faith, philosophy, government, science, and art as much as it is about a product. When you finish reading this work, you feel that a simple chemical compound might be the most important thing on the face of the earth–and you feel incredibly thirsty.

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