A History of the World in Six Glasses

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A History of the World in Six Glasses Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas Standage's A History of the World in Six Glasses. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas Standage

 Tom Standage grew up in London, where his parents encouraged him to study history, science, and English literature. He then studied at Oxford University, one of the world’s most prestigious colleges. Afterward graduating from Oxford with a degree in computer science, Standage took a number of freelancing jobs for British magazines and newspapers, including The Economist and The Guardian. Standage focused on 19th century history, particularly that of America and the U.K. In 1998 he published his first successful book, The Victorian Internet. At a time when intellectuals and journalists were falling over themselves to praise the newly-popular Internet for changing the way the world works, Standage offered a droller and more cynical conclusion: while the Internet was an impressive step forward for mankind, it was a modest achievement when compared with the invention of the electric telegraph more than a century before. On the strength of The Victorian Internet, Standage was able to devote himself to writing more provocative book-length essays. In 2005, he published A History of the World in Six Glasses, in which he proposed that the history of mankind could be told by studying the most popular beverages during different historical eras. Standage has published five other works of nonfiction, and currently serves as deputy editor for The Economist, the magazine to which he’s been contributing for more than 20 years.
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Historical Context of A History of the World in Six Glasses

 There are simply too many historical events to name in A History of the World in Six Glasses, as the book itself is a survey history of the world (albeit a Eurocentric one). In the barest terms, however, the book breaks world history down into six distinct eras: 1) the agricultural era, during which nomadic tribes learned how to farm crops for sustenance; 2) the Classical era, during which Greek and Roman civilizations conquered much of the Mediterranean world and developed sophisticated art, literature, philosophy, and architecture; 3) the Age of Exploration, during which European nations explored (and exploited) the Americas, Africa, and Asia in search of resources; 4) the Age of Enlightenment, during which intellectuals in Europe celebrated the importance of study, experimentation, and mankind’s natural right to freedom; 5) the Industrial era, during which strong Western nations like the United States and Great Britain used superior technology to conquer much of the world; and 6) the “American century,” during which the United States emerged from two World Wars as the dominant superpower.

Other Books Related to A History of the World in Six Glasses

 A History of the World in Six Glasses is a work of nonfiction written in a droll tone and divided into six distinct parts—each one of these parts can be read and enjoyed on its own. In this sense, perhaps the most relevant model for Tom Standage was Lytton Strachey’s highly influential 1918 book Eminent Victorians, an entertainingly-narrated look at the lives of four famous 19th-century Englanders. It’s easy to underestimate the impact that Strachey’s book had on nonfiction writing in the English language—Strachey was responsible for introducing a new measure of levity and whimsy into book-length works of history. Standage, who specializes in Victorian history, and who has praised Strachey’s works in various interviews, seems well aware of his debt. Standage also mentions various works of literature in his book, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the world’s first true work of literature. In this Mesopotamian epic poem, first performed for an audience more than 5,000 years ago, King Gilgamesh struggles with the gods and the elements to gain control over his kingdom and over himself.
Key Facts about A History of the World in Six Glasses
  • Full Title: A History of the World in Six Glasses
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: June 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Non-fiction
  • Genre: Creative Non-fiction, Historical Commentary
  •  Setting: Too many to name—the book travels across history and around the world, focusing on settings like ancient Greece, Victorian England, Enlightenment France, and feudal Japan.
  • Climax: None: the book is structured as a collection of six essays, each of which deals with a different beverage and historical era.
  • Antagonist: None
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for A History of the World in Six Glasses

Tom Standage: an unofficial biography: At the age of six, Tom Standage’s daughter Ella wrote the following about her father: “My daddy’s name is tom. he tells me storys. He likes beer coffee and rum. he has bron hair and blue eyes. he has a nose that looks funny. he is 36 years old. he is great! he has big ears. he works in the Economist. he ritse books. he isent very good at gardening. he dose smelly farts. I love him.” Enough said.

Quite the “niche”: Tom Standage has spent most of his adult life exploring an unusual thesis: that the world hasn’t changed much since the Victorian era. While this might seem to be obviously untrue (all sorts of things we take for granted today, such as the Internet, the airplane, the radio, and the computer, didn’t exist 150 years ago), Standage’s point is that while much important technology has been invented since the Victorian era, there have been almost no improvements in the basic scientific breakthrough of that time: the discovery of the electric signal. As one might imagine, there aren’t many people who agree with Standage’s argument, and in recent years he has relished his status as a lone detractor against the glory of the Internet, writing pieces for The Economist and giving TED talks.