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A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth (Book Review) @VikingBooksUK @Inkyfool #NonFictionNovember


Sent to me by Penguin Viking UK in exchange for an honest review.

Release Date: 02/11/17

Publisher: Penguin Viking UK

ISBN: 978-0241297681

Format: Hardback, 256pp

Genre: Non-Fiction

Rating: 4.5/5

Summed up in a word: Inebriation

First Impressions

Mark Forsyth is one of my main go to authors for Non-Fiction. His work on Etymology is outstanding and I highly recommend The Etymologicon and The Horologicon. A Short History was just as insightful, comical and interesting as I would have hoped. MF takes us through the ages and their cultural, socio-economical and geographical circumstances when it came to obtaining alcohol and their objections or encouragements of the inevitable drunkenness that follows. Forsyth is a natural historian and his immersive writing style continues to be a entertaining and informative treat. Highly recommended! Full review below.

Book Synopsis

Almost every culture on earth has drink, and where there’s drink there’s drunkenness. But in every age and in every place drunkenness is a little bit different. It can be religious, it can be sexual, it can be the duty of kings or the relief of peasants. It can be an offering to the ancestors, or a way of marking the end of a day’s work. It can send you to sleep, or send you into battle.

A Short History of Drunkenness traces humankind’s love affair with booze from our primate ancestors through to Prohibition, answering every possible question along the way: What did people drink? How much? Who did the drinking? Of the many possible reasons, why? On the way, learn about the Neolithic Shamans, who drank to communicate with the spirit world (no pun intended), marvel at how Greeks got giddy and Romans got rat-arsed, and find out how bars in the Wild West were never quite like in the movies.

This is a history of the world at its inebriated best.

My Review

Here we have a short but surprisingly comprehensive history of intoxication. Mark Forsyth is a brilliant historian and natural entertainer. Combining his knowledge of the past with all the intrigue of drunkenness through the ages. From primates who foraged for fermented fruit to ancient festivals of drunkenness and beyond; MF takes us on a journey of inebriation that is both shocking and jovial. I had a great time with this book, not only is it filled with interesting (as well as bleak or horrifying) information but it is entertaining as well. I was captivated by MF’s warm, charming and witty writing about so many pivotal moments in history and the respective views on intoxication. A Short History is a boozy look back on the socio-economical, geological and cultural evolution of the drunk and disorderly.

Mark Forsyth admits that he is not an expert on drunkenness, though he has had his fair share of experiences. His writing is mostly objective in A Short History, though he does lend a personal touch or quip here and there.

“I’m aware of some of the basic medical facts. A couple of gin and tonics will impair your reflexes; a dozen or so will reacquaint you with your lunch and make it difficult to stand up, and an uncertain number, which I am unwilling to investigate, will kill you. But that’s not what we know (in an Augustinian way) drunkenness is.”

There is actually quite a large amount of historical content to digest within these pages. From the beginning of evolution and the ancient societies, through the dark ages and up to the rise in cities. There is also plenty of mythological stories and events surrounding alcohol, drunkenness and gods to enjoy. A Short History is densely populated with tales and facts about the controversial of getting pissed. As MF points out, this is not a book about Alcohol, it is a history of inebriation through the ages. Discussing how Alcohol was introduced into each definitive time period of our recent history and how it became instrumental or a hindrance in the development of modern society. It also covers both the ubiquity and idiosyncrasies of each society’s stance on the sauce; such as the Greek’s Symposiums or the Roman’s less sophisticated Convivia (which where both heavily influenced by the drink).

Though the information and stories are fascinating, it is certainly MF’s writing that makes this such a great read. MF is an expert in etymology and his command of the English language is superb. I was drawn in by his informative and immersive writing style that puts you directly in the shoes of people of each era. MF’s work is undoubtedly relevant but he is also having a lot of fun putting pen to paper which, for me, is important. He isn’t just droning on about everything he knows, MF wants to surprise the reader, amuse them and teach us some interesting details about the diverse history of drunkenness.

I was truly fascinated by the vast array of points that MF tries to cover in this short 250 pages book. It is not over-simplified either, he just covers many bases with a variety of perspectives. There is a point where MF takes the reader through an immersive Wild West saloon experience and I was astounded by how transfixed I got with the details. Forsyth has also filed the book with texts and translation taken from plenty of historical documents and books that centre around drunken antics. Lots of excerpts, quotes, essays, songs and poetry to emphasise our species reliance on booze through history. My only real issue with the book is that MF writing doesn’t really paint a whole picture of the path that Alcohol has carved through our past. Each chapter is a chunk that is (sort of) connected to the previous/next chapter but I didn’t leave the book with as much of the satisfying connectivity that he has shown in his previous works. Maybe he will release a longer version in the future that joins up a few more of the sections.

Overall, I had a great time with A Short History, it is informative, immersive and great fun. Mark Forsyth is an excellent historian, wordsmith and entertainer and I can’t recommend this book enough. Pick it up and let me know what you thought!

Pick up a copy of A Short History Of Drunkenness here: Penguin Viking UK / Amazon UK / Goodreads

About Mark Forsyth

Born in London in 1977, Mark Forsyth (a.k.a The Inky Fool) was given a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary as a christening present and has never looked back. His book The Etymologicon was a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller and his TED Talk ‘What’s a snollygoster?’ has had more than half a million views. He has also written a specially commissioned essay ‘The Unknown Unknown’ for Independent Booksellers Week and the introduction for the new edition of the Collins English Dictionary. He lives in London with his dictionaries, and blogs at

Mark’s Media: Twitter


5 thoughts on “A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth (Book Review) @VikingBooksUK @Inkyfool #NonFictionNovember

  1. Aaaah! This sounds like a really cool book!
    My work mate loves a bit of history as well and he was telling me how men who used to work on ships had a gigantic quota of booze (what was it again, rum? whiskey? I can’t remember!) but I remember how my mouth fell open at the fact! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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