Monthly Archives: April 2009


The first reviews of “An Edible History of Humanity” have appeared in Kirkus Reviews and the Library Journal. There have also been some early reader reviews from Amazon and BookBrowse. The book is out on May 12th in Britain and America.

Kirkus Reviews: Society is what it eats. That’s the contention of Economist business editor Standage (A History of the World in Six Glasses, 2005, etc.). Writers have given close scrutiny to the histories of individual foods, cuisines and traditions, he notes, but have rarely looked at the history of food on a global scale. That’s why he decided to write this meaty little volume, which “concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history.” Tapping into fields as diverse as economics, anthropology, archaeology and genetics, the author asks a simple question: Which foods have had the most influence on shaping the world we live in today? Surprisingly, the list is short; corn, wheat, rice and the potato have been predominant in agriculture and commerce. But history isn’t Standage’s only concern. He takes the long view to illuminate and contextualize such contemporary issues as genetically modified foods, the complex relationship between food and poverty, the local food movement, the politicization of food and the environmental outcomes of modern methods of agriculture. It’s a tall order, impressively filled. Food was pivotal in the creation of social hierarchies in prehistoric cultures. It was central to the spread of European colonial powers. The Industrial Revolution sprang from concerns over food. The Soviet Union collapsed because food was running out. Advancements in biotechnology have proved a double-edged sword—a boon to the hungry and a bane to the environment. Written in the lucid, plain and rather stiff prose familiar to readers of the Economist, the book, like the magazine, is cogent, informative and insightful. An intense briefing on the making of our world from the vantage point of food history.

Library Journal: Standage’s previous book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses , theorized that the titular six drinks were reflections of the eras in which they were created. In this new work, he instead shows how one of humanity’s most vital needs (hunger) didn’t simply reflect but served as the driving force behind transformative and key events in history. Dividing the vast subject into six general sections (such as food’s role in the development of societies and social hierarchies, its impact on population and industrialization, and its uses as a weapon both on the battlefield and off), Standage illustrates each section with historical examples and observations. Some topics, like the spice trade’s encouragement of exploration, are fairly obvious choices, but the concise style and inclusion of little-known details keep the material both entertaining and enlightening. Perhaps the most interesting section is the final one, which looks at the ways in which modern agricultural needs have acted as a spur for technological advancement, with Standage providing a summary of the challenges still faced by the green revolution. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.


Digging around in an online archive of old American newspapers, I came upon an article entitled “The Electro Magnetic Telegraph — A Great Revolution Approaching” from the New York Herald, published on May 12th, 1845. I quoted some of it in The Victorian Internet, but re-reading it I was struck by how closely it reflects what is happening today, and I think it’s worth quoting at greater length:

If this mode of transmitting intelligence fully succeeds and comes into universal operation — as no doubt it will — an entire revolution in many of the present institutions and elements of society will be effected.

In regard to the newspaper press, it will experience to a degree, that must in a vast number of cases be fatal, the effects of the new mode of circulating intelligence. The telegraph may not affect magazine literature, nor those newspapers that have some peculiar characteristic. But the mere newspapers — the circulators of intelligence merely — must submit to destiny, and go out of existence. That journalism, however, which possesses intellect, mind and originality, will not suffer. Its sphere of action will be widened. It will, in fact, be more influential than ever. The public mind will be stimulated to greater activity by the rapid circulation of news. The swift communication of tidings of great events will awake in the masses of the community still keener interest in public affairs. Thus the intellectual, philosophic and original journalist, will have a greater, a more excited, and more thoughtful audience than ever.

This prediction was wrong, of course. The telegraph did not destroy newspapers — it provided them instead with a vast new supply of information. It became worthwhile to produce several editions of a newspaper a day. If there was a fast-moving story, people might buy more than one paper a day. The telegraph was great at delivering news, but it could not deliver it directly to subscribers, since it was an expensive, hard-to-use point-to-point medium. So the telegraph actually strengthened the newspapers’ existing business model, which was to aggregate news for readers, and  readers for advertisers.

Today the problem for the newspapers is that the modern-day telegraph, the internet, does undermine their model, because it’s easy to use and ubiquitous. Indeed, the newspapers have been undermining it themselves by making their content available free online, where there are fewer advertising dollars available. In recent days there has been a lot of fuss about whether newspapers should deny news aggregator sites, such as Google News and Digg, the right to link to their stories. As many observers have pointed out, but very few newspaper bosses seem to have realised, this would be idiotic, because aggregators drive a lot of traffic to news sites. Having fewer readers would hardly improve matters; what is needed is a new business model. I think newspapers will have to start charging for their content in some form, and that will be easier to do if they have something distinctive to offer. But many newspapers have been going the other way, following the herd and rewriting wire copy in response to what seems to be popular on Digg or the Drudge Report.

The article from 1845 had it right. Newspapers “that have some peculiar characteristic” (such as the Wall Street Journal, which does charge readers) will be better positioned. And journalism “which possesses intellect, mind and originality, will not suffer.” Of course, I’d like to think that applies to The Economist, which has just had a bumper year, and is generally doing well. The gloomy prediction of the death of “mere newspapers” at the hands of new technology turned out to be wrong in 1845, but seems to be coming true 164 years later.

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