A popular history of getting soused.
Language historian Forsyth (The Elements of Eloquence, 2014, etc.) assembles a brisk, witty, and roughly chronological précis on drinking cultures and practices around the world since the earliest fizzle of fermentation. Using humor to skim over the violence and sadness of alcohol abuse, the author specializes in snappy summaries and choice anecdotes about the weird and obsessive customs that people have created around the process of getting drunk, with more snark reserved for the teetotalers than the tipplers. Take the ancient Egyptians, who felt it their holy duty to imbibe and cavort to excess, one of many cultures that used alcohol as a means to spiritual elevation. While his coverage can be glib and occasionally unbalanced—he waxes on about Shakespeare's relationship to wine but distills millennia of Middle Eastern intoxication into the quip that, “For a Muslim, drinking is rarely simple”—Forsyth’s rollicking sketches belie the extensive research that informs them. He offers a solidly embedded history, zooming in on the spaces and objects that have enabled and embodied inebriation across the ages. As with his work in etymology, this book showcases Forsyth’s ability to make sense of the court records, wine songs, and snatches of poetry he finds in the textual slag heap. Not surprisingly, much of the story is bound up in religion and the law, and he leverages the anthropological distinction between “wet” and “dry" societies to explain, among other things, the close relationship between prohibitive legislation and widespread drunkenness. Forsyth's account is as ribald and casual as that of a teenage tour guide working for tips, but it’s full of good history and good humor. This smart and satisfying generalist history will make you wish the author would sum up every other subject while you bob along the waves of his irreverent, learned wit (preferably with a drink in hand).
The ideal companion for an idle hour, like one spent in an airport bar.