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One Shot Too Many

Posted: 09/21/07 12:29 PM ET

It takes a sharp tongue to write well about wine and drinking. Good writing on the sensuous appreciation of drink makes the reader want to order one of what the author is having; bad drinks writing makes the reader want to pass on the next round and go play a game of pool.

Despite her acuity, Barbara Holland's polemic, The Joy of Drinking, made me eye my liquor cabinet warily and pour myself another ginger ale. The writing is evocative, but her argument for the benefits of intoxication makes me wonder if her home brew has something funny in it.

This highly readable book is best appreciated as a social history of drunkenness among the English-speaking peoples. Holland begins her history just as the first mythical bucket of barley got wet, bubbled and fermented into beer. It was tasted, and found to be good, and the practice took off as a way for an agrarian society to preserve excess grain and fruit by turning it into a pleasure-giving beverage.

Holland writes compellingly about the value of hoisting a few cold ones down at the bar build camaraderie and wash off the dust of the day. It has served this function since medieval times, when the tavern doubled as a pharmacy. Pre-contemporary Britain lacked few other medicines, so alcohol was the cure for most ailments. According to both Holland and her medieval sources, beer gives courage and virility to men, while gin sharpens the wits, preserves youth and cures "women's ailments." Evian and Poland Spring's health claims pale in comparison.

Since drink was good for you, our British forebears imbibed a lot of it. During the reign of Charles II, the typical English household drank 36 gallons of beer a week along with many more tankards of wine and brandy. Eighteenth-century gentlemen put away four to six bottles of port in the course of an evening, and English farm workers in the nineteenth century drank seventeen pints of beer a day during harvest.

Holland implies that it was everyone's jolly right to run about merrily tanked all day, and a pity when Carry Nation, public health busybodies and other killjoys swept in to ruin the party. Holland stirs up no controversy when she asserts that prohibition was a bad idea, but her list of other targets might raise a few eyebrows. Teetotalers are accused of being enemies of fun, and so are moderate drinkers, fanciers of elaborate cocktails, wine snobs, gym rats, bottled water devotees and coffee addicts.

Any society that might seek to limit alcohol consumption is up to no good: just look at those over-caffeinated Muslims, she writes, who plot terrorist attacks over coffee when they might otherwise be peacefully getting sloshed. The only people that earn Holland's approval are those convivial souls the world over who built polite society one pint at a time down at the tavern, until they become too drunk to stand up.

What finally earns my own scorn is Holland's sneering attitude toward those who are "powerless over alcohol," whose "lives have become unmanageable." She resurrects the old slur that an alcoholic is someone who can't hold his liquor, and mocks luxurious rehab centers and the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous. Holland fires a few final pot shots at moderation, "whatever that means," she writes, as if only sissies stop after a glass or two. If Holland is the captain of the drinking team, put me in to play for those who imbibe nothing stronger than lemonade.

Our medieval forebears may have been titans of the tankard, but I see no reason why we should take our cues on drinking from medieval Europe. Alcohol is no longer a cure-all. We have an average lifespan that is three times that of the average eighteenth-century peasant, and we don't need to get dead drunk in order to feel no pain. An ibuprofen works fine. The only way to not need an ibuprofen after so much drinking is never to stop -- the method Holland endorses.

Tying one on once in a while is a merry thing, as is a working up a little buzz at the end of the day with a drink. But a jolt of coffee in the morning is also pleasant, as is the feeling of fulfillment and exhaustion after exercise, and the clear thinking that comes from sobriety. Fermented barley is one way to lighten one's cares, but people have thought up many other ways too. It's unfortunate that Holland sees fit to exalt her pet indulgence at the expense of all the others.