The popular history-ish work, A History of the World in Six Glasses, is an examination of human history and how important the consumption of fluid refreshment has been in shaping it. As Tom Standage importantly notes, a human being can go for possibly weeks without consuming solid food and remain alive, however after only a few days without water he will perish. Only breathing air is more important to immediate survival. However, water is not the focus of his narrative, for as human societies advanced they found that water was often tainted and that other beverages were safer. These were beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and finally colas. These were all preferable to contaminated water because they were made potable through fermentation, or because the water used in them was boiled. Although it is a fascinating read, and appears to be factually accurate, A History of the world in six Glasses is not scholarly history. This is because Standage is not a professional Historian. He is a professional author, writing with an eye towards the popular audience. His book is the kind of enjoyable read that an intelligent bibliophile might buy in the airport bookstore before his long flight to enjoy in the air and while on his vacation. This is not to say that there are any deficiencies that would superficially invalidate his arguments. However, his book would not in general meet the rigorous standards expected of most academic work, but then again most academic works do not have a broad appeal like Standage. This raises the serious question of can an intelligent, educated layperson, who is not a professional historian make important contributions to the field. Also, how do works like this contribute to or detract from the field of history in general, and how does Standage’s work fit specifically within the overall concept of “world history”?
Any student who has taken a Historiography class would probably be familiar with the question of does history have a purpose. Is there a usefulness to it besides purely intellectual interest, or entertainment value. It can be argued that, yes there is a purpose. One such purpose would be to educate, even indoctrinate, individual citizens, so as to create a more harmonious society. A shared past narrative is critical to forming a unified society that can overcome adversity and remain cohesive. This is visible today, as several modern nation states, some of them artificially created, are breaking apart along ethnic lines that can claim a shared history. Such popular histories are generally not scholarly in execution, and tend to water down the more intricate questions of any particular historical topic. However, they are fine at conveying an overall understanding of a particular topic important to a specific population. As for Standage, his purpose is not indoctrination, but to educate through a work that is likely to be read by a specific demographic within the non-historian, general public. The person that his “popular history” would appeal to is most likely of above average intelligence, educated, and middle class or above. This type of above average citizen, yet probably not especially historically literate person, would appreciate Standage’s discussion of why Westerners drink these particular beverages and how they improved past human societies. Standage’s assertions as to the great impact these particular drinks had on history as a whole would also be of broad appeal to his demographic. However, as mentioned before, the intricacies of this topic are not discussed, and while a professional historian might scratch his head at some of the claims made in the narrative, the non-professional is content not to get bogged down in complex arguments.
There is a second way that popular histories have become important to the overall field of history. Immediately following World War I in the United States there arose a group of scholars, some of them professional historians, who began to question the narrative surrounding this great conflict. They wondered aloud if the reasons that had been given for the United States to enter the war on the side of Great Britain and France were valid. They also began a debate as to the merits of the United States remaining isolated from a specifically European conflict, and would it have been a wiser course to follow. These revisionists became very vocal and very influential, yet the United States entered another major war in 1941. Following the Second World War no such revisionist movement arose, and it was almost unquestioned that the allies’ cause was just. Until very recently there seems to have been a very real reluctance among distinguished professional historians to revisit World War II and seriously question the events as they transpired. This need has been filled by some authors of popular history. One of these is Patrick Buchanan who in his book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War questions the accepted narrative of the road to World War II in the 1930’s. Buchanan is a well-known conservative pundit, and those who lean to the left may question his motivations, but his inquiries are valid and competently researched. In fact, his conclusions may offend not just progressives, but anyone who accepts the World War II as a “good” war theory. However, the point here is not Buchanan’s conclusions, but that a popular history is contributing to the general field by asking important questions that professionals should be asking but largely have not. Why they are not is also a compelling question. Perhaps the narrative is exactly as it should be and no revision is required. However, more likely is that the current regime and present society are heavily invested in it, and would be greatly troubled if it was found to be not entirely true. For a professional whose livelihood may depend upon public institutions it would be ill advised to question the prevailing wisdom. However, a writer of popular history would probably depend on sales of his product more than anything, and would be more inclined to tackle controversial subject matter. Standage is not addressing controversial topics but the genre in general can benefit the field by asking tough questions.
Popular history can pose a problem however, simply because the authors are generally not professional historians. They are not held to the rigorous academic standards, or peer review process that the professionally trained are. Also, they are in many cases unable to synthesis complex and intermingling issues into coherent theories or explanations because they lack a wide exposure to vast array of human history. For lack of a better term, they are unable to see the forest for the trees; they miss the bigger picture. This criticism can be applied directly to Standage’s work. In it he often attributes the unfolding of events as a direct result of his subject. For instance, he argues that the British involvement in the opium trade in China was directly attributable to their desire for Chinese tea. This may be true, but it is more likely that more complex factors in trade, economics, and diplomacy played a more important role. However, if the average reader of popular histories was not familiar with British Imperial history, they might accept the argument at face value. The same can be said of Buchanan’s book as well. The professional historian will by training be critical of overly simplistic conclusions. Also, as popular history can be used by virtuous authorities to educate citizens and integrate them into a harmonious society, it can also be used by questionable authorities to propagandize the citizenry. This is not to say that professional historian cannot be corrupted in the same way, but popular histories have a much wider audience and are more efficient. There is no shortage of totalitarian regimes that have manipulated the past to better control their subjects, but relatively open government have also used this techniques to maneuver the population, especially during wartime.
Finally, there is the question of Standage’s book as a work of world history. Is it seeking connections between different people and times. He does in his own fashion move beyond the tradition of focusing on the political aspects of history or great personages. His subject is engrossed in economics, culture, and the preferences of the common man. While this is not world history per say, it is an attempt to move beyond what traditionally constituted history to seek wider vistas. Additionally, the very nature of his subject creates in itself connections between very different cultures. Mankind, as long as the physical means were available, has always sought to trade desirable items. Language, culture and geography have often been no barrier to this. Standage traces how the discoveries and innovations of one society can spread far and wide to have major impact on many other societies. This can be for good or ill, but it is still indicates that human being share common desires and tastes. It is that last point that is most fascinating. Even if the possibility of trade and interaction between different cultures were removed it seems that almost all humans share a common trait; the desire to create some type of fermented alcoholic beverage. Almost any group of humans that has access to some type of grain or fruit will develop their own from of beer or wine. Even alcoholic milk based drinks have been developed by nomadic herdsmen. People simply enjoy the act of becoming intoxicated.
To conclude, A History of the World in 6 Glasses is a popular history, but it is a good popular history. It is insightful, it discusses an interesting topic, and it is useful as an educational tool. It does have its limitations, because Standage is not a historian by trade. He misses some of the nuances of his subject, and makes claims that are rather bold given the evidence. It is a good book, but is it an important book? Popular histories can be very important works and can ask very important questions, however this is not one of those. It does an excellent job of opening an important topic in world history to the general public, but it is no revolution in the field of history.