Review of Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

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Published: June 29, 1993 by Vintage | Series: N/A | Length: 237 pages | Genre: Nonfiction, History | Source: Bought

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Summary from Goodreads:

From the extravagant use of pepper in the Middle Ages to the Protestant bourgeoisie’s love of coffee to the reason why fashionable Europeans stopped sniffing tobacco and starting smoking it, Schivelbusch looks at how the appetite for pleasure transformed the social structure of the Old World.

In Tastes of Paradise, Schivelbusch takes us through the history of some of the most popular mainstream drugs, specifically tobacco, alcohol, tea (to some extent), opium (very briefly), coffee, and chocolate. He basically talks about how these substances were first introduced to Europe and then how they became very popular and how they affected the social structure. This is very much a social history of the substances. It doesn’t really talk about the substances themselves, but rather their social importance in European culture.

I have to say, I’m really glad that I ended up having to read this for one of my classes this semester because I don’t think I ever would have come across it otherwise. This is a short book but it tells you quite a lot. I particularly loved reading the parts about coffee because I’m a bit of a coffee addict now and it was interesting to see how it started off as this very exotic drink only for the upper class and then turned into what it is now: a very common, cheap drink that many people have every single day.

What I enjoyed most about this was definitely seeing the differences in class when it came to these substances. Every one of them started off as something for the upper class to enjoy and to use as a symbol of their status and wealth. But slowly it expanded to the middle class who liked to use the substances to emulate the wealth of the upper class and then eventually also to the working class as it became available to them. Not only do you see a difference in availability, but you see how this difference changes desirability (after all, what rich person wants something that a poor person can have?) and also differences in consumption. It was really fascinating to see how with some substances, how you consumed it was more important for the upper class than the substance itself.

The reason I gave this four instead of five stars was because although the content itself was really interesting, Schivelbusch’s writing could be a bit dry at times. For the most part, everything is told in a very narrative way so that it doesn’t really feel like a history book, but there were parts where I got bored because he would kind of start talking in a way that really made it difficult to stay interested in what he was saying.

I liked the few parts that talked about how x substance had created this huge new social space. This was mostly with alcohol and coffee, as with those substances we see taverns and coffeehouses and the like. These sections were interesting because you don’t realize how important these areas were for people to get together and talk politics or something like that. Just getting to see how important these social spaces were and how they all revolved around a particular substance was fascinating.

One last thing that I definitely have to mention is how awesome the pictures were in this book. I’ll say that even though the book is technically 237 pages, it’s probably actually about half that length because a lot of those pages are pictures. I really liked glimpsing at these because you got to see how certain substances were depicted at different times. Schivelbusch does a great job of including pictures that really represent the popular opinion surrounding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, etc. Some of my favorites were the ones that were trying to convince people that alcohol is the enemy and is going to destroy you because the ways that people who drink were depicted were incredibly amusing.

Like I already mentioned, I’m really glad that I had the chance to read this. This is definitely a good book to read if you have any interest in history or in how substances like coffee and alcohol came to be popular or how they transformed cultures.


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