BARBARA HOLLAND is a person you’d want to sit in front of a cozy fire and drink with, toasting the colorful, capricious, ever-swinging pendulum of human morality. With a style as witty, practical and Triple Sec as M.F.K. Fisher’s, Holland’s “The Joy of Drinking” (Bloomsbury: 152 pp., $14.95) grows from a hilarious ancient-history lesson into a compulsively readable mini-mosaic of humans and our various fermented tipples -- as well as our paroxysms of moral indignation over these same tipples.
Adolf Hitler, she writes, was dry, but Winston Churchill “began each day with a whiskey-and-soda for breakfast.” John Adams drank a large “tankard” of hard cider before breakfast. Our revered Puritans were not so “virtuous they’d make your teeth hurt.... They just didn’t connect sin with drinking.”
In fact, they got their Native American hosts quite inebriated and were nicely indulgent with each other too. A most human quality, Holland seems to argue. In general, drinking makes life easier, more fun. And more fun makes people nicer to one another.
Except when it doesn’t.
“The Joy of Drinking” is peppered with quiet humor, science and historical fact, often in the same sentence.
Who knew sparkling red wine with “the added benefit of a goodly dollop of cocaine” not only makes a “psychoactive metabolite, cocaethylene, ... and produces a perfectly delicious state of euphoria,” but also once “nourished, fortified and refreshed” Pope Leo XIII, and U.S. Presidents Grant and McKinley?
The historical definition of what is good and evil is what Holland has fun with here. Not unsympathetic to the plight of alcoholism, she simply seems to feel we’ve gone too far in our quest to purify ourselves of pleasure -- and of “sin.” Our newest trick, she says, is to dress up drinking for the PhD crowd: As long as you are a “knowledgeable specialist, selecting and appraising your glassful and critiquing every swallow,” she writes, then you’re not seen as being debauched. You’re sophisticated. “America,” she suggests, “is currently eager to see drinking as a highly specialized field ... rather than vulgar fun.”
But it’s clear that she begs to differ.
-- Joy Nicholson