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Coffee: A Dark History    by Antony Wild order for
by Antony Wild
Order:  USA  Can
Harmony, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

Who would have thought a book about such a humdrum beverage would be so exciting?

To start with, coffee isn't as humdrum as you might think. Sure, the stuff is everywhere, you've probably had at least one cup today (assuming you're not holding one in your hand right now), but think about this: centuries ago, entire trade empires were based on the import and export of coffee. Lloyds of London, the world famous maritime insurance company, has its origins in Lloyds Coffee House, where customers would chat about shipping news.

Drinking too much coffee something like a hundred cups 'rapidly consumed' can kill you. Caffeine, even more than marijuana and Benzedrine, addles the brains of spiders so much that it affects their ability to weave webs. Overindulgence in coffee can lead to caffeine psychosis, symptoms of which include hallucinations and paranoia; some truck drivers in the United States, a country that consumes a quarter of the coffee produced worldwide, have 'reported being pursued by balls of white light.' (This, Wild suggests, 'could explain the widespread belief in UFOs in that country.' Interesting notion.)

Wild, a veteran coffee trader and historian who has previously written an excellent history of the East India Company (which played a major role in the early days of the coffee trade), clearly has a deep and abiding love for this dark, bitter, seductive liquid. He packs his lively book with fascinating nuggets of information did you know that there is a credible theory that bright red coffee berries might have been the 'forbidden fruit' that caused the rapid expansion of prehistoric man's brain? and leads us through the oft-convoluted history of that brown stuff you drink in the morning.

The history of coffee, Wild tells us, is the history of the modern world. With grace and surpassing erudition, he demonstrates the relationship between coffee and politics, the arts, and the sciences. Empires rose and fell, thousands of people lived lives of slavery, entire political structures were devised so you could sit in your comfy chair and sip a cup of piping hot java. Makes you think, doesn't it?

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