The Joy of Drinking

The Joy of Drinking is a slight and uneven book without a thesis or point, but it nevertheless delights. The nearest I can come to a reason for writing it is to defend the drinking is awesome idea in a way more highbrow and fashionable than movies about hookups. Parts should have been expanded—”Human companionship has dropped far down in our priorities and other people only interrupt more exciting options,” Barbara Holland writes. Really? How is this related to drinking? Parts are too long—which may seem odd in a 150 page volume, counting appendices and a bibliography—like the one dealing with Alcoholics Anonymous.

I liked it anyway.

Given its flaws, why the hell was it so entertaining? I suppose for the same reason friends report bad movies are: as long as you don’t think too much about them they work (there’s a reason to twice compare The Joy of Drinking to movies: it is like an oddly edited one that shifts rapidly from one idea to another). The book is fun as long as you’re not going to have a lawyerly argument and can roll like a cask down the lane of ideas. Certainly it’s nice to find a place defending the ancient and (dis?)honorable ways of drinking, especially given its apparent decline in some parts of Western society. Whether drinking has genuinely declined, or at least the better aspects of its culture, is hard to tell, but again perfect statistics are not Holland’s purpose—they are incidental to her celebration of drinking. Celebrating drinking might not be as fun as drinking itself, but the two can be combined more readily than, say, books about sex.

Holland mocks her perceived opponents, such as an ill-conceived work of “God”: “[… Carry Nation] had the courage of her convictions, and God Himself had appeared to her and told her that her mission in life was to stamp out everything alcoholic in the whole country, so she abandoned her husband and daughter and marched forth to do His bidding.” You can hear the tall tavern tale, which is appropriate given that the book is about drinking. In fact, the whole thing has the feel of chatter for when you are drinking with friends, rather than for when you want to argue with a friend about why drinking is wise and even historically acceptable. To hear Holland tell it in one section, our nation practically depends on tipping back a pint or pitcher.

I’ll roll with that rather than quibble at the means used to support the conclusion. Maybe I, like Holland, am just defending self-interest.

See reviews from The New York Times and The L.A. Times.

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