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The World of Caffeine
Last fall, a book manuscript arrived unannounced in the mail. It was a book about caffeine that was to be published soon. The name of one of the authors was familiar, Bennett Weinberg, though he didn't send any letter with it. I wondered if he was the Bennett Weinberg I knew from high school but hadn't heard from in, probably, 30+ years. I was busy so I ignored it.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Bennett. Indeed, it was he, my classmate Benny's cousin, and member of the grade two years ahead of me (I went to a very small high school). He was looking for a known computer person to read the book and perhaps write something for the back jacket cover. I told him I didn't feel qualified, but that my old partner Bob was much more into the culture of coffee, etc., and would be perfect. He thanked me, and contacted Bob.

Book cover: The World of CaffeineA few weeks ago I got a copy of the finished book: The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug. Sure enough, there was a quote from Bob about "...the drug that helped fuel the computer revolution..." Bob is listed as "co-creator with Dan Bricklin of the VisiCalc spreadsheet", so Bennett did find a way to get me onto the cover, and get his computer connection.

I finally had time to read some of it on the plane the other day. It's a large book, 344 pages of fine print, plus lot of footnotes, so I haven't had time to read it all, if I ever will. But it became clear to me pretty quickly that this is a cool book, one a lot of people will read and give as a gift. Every few minutes I was poking my tripmate Don and excitedly saying "Did you know..." A flight attendant noticed the cover and made excited comments about it. I'll be quoting from it for some time.

Bennett and co-author Bonnie Bealer cover history (how it was discovered and introduced in different countries), culture (tea ceremonies, coffee houses, etc.), laboratory research, health effects (its relation to cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, fertility, depression, PMS, kids, etc.), and more. They cover tea, coffee, cola drinks, and chocolate. There are hundreds of "I didn't know that" tidbits, especially seen in today's light.

The thing I like best about the book was how it is written. While it is scholarly with great detail and no sugar coating (no pun intended), I found it fun to read. The quotes and analysis are clearly chosen as if a smiling but serious friend was trying to make history interesting and related to today. By taking on such a wide topic ("the World of..."), the authors are free to mix pharmacology with history, sociology and commerce. They present their own opinions. This helps keep the book interesting.

Some notes:

Introduction: "Caffeine, by any measure, is the world's most popular drug, easily surpassing nicotine and alcohol. Caffeine is the only addictive psychoactive substance that has overcome resistance and disapproval around the world to the extent that it is freely available almost everywhere, unregulated, sold without license, offered over the counter in tablet and capsule form, and even added to beverages intended for children."
The chapter heads are handwritten in a tight jittery style, I guess to look like someone who just drank a few cups of coffee.
Chapters often start with a quote or two. For example, at the start of the chapter about Europe's first use of caffeine, there is this quote from Jose de Acosta, S.J., commenting on chocolate use in Mexico in 1590:

The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it...[but] is a valued drink which the Indians offer to the lords who come or pass through their land. And the Spanish men -- and even more the Spanish women -- are addicted to the black chocolate.
Jose Acosta, S.J., 1590

They reproduce illustrations of NASA's tests on the effects of various drugs on spiders, mentioned in the New Yorker in 1995. The somewhat clean webs created after being subjected to marijuana and benzedrine contrast to the weird ones made on caffeine. The New Yorker assumed it relates to how error-prone some people get on coffee, but the book points out that caffeine is a neurotoxin to insects, and that it probably developed in plants as a natural defense mechanism.
They offer much discussion of caffeine use in children. One anecdote: After a lawsuit in the early 1900s, Coca-Cola agreed never to feature any child under 12-years old in their advertisements (which they followed until 1986). Deciding to change their positioning from a tonic to a simple beverage for all, including children, they needed to find a way to get young drinkers into the fold without showing them in ads. The book tells of "...Coca-Cola's most brilliant response to this apparent dilemma: the invention of the modern Santa Claus. Santa Claus, as we all know, is a portly, white-haired gentleman with a snowy beard, broad smile, rosy cheeks, red nose, wearing a costume somewhat resembling bright red flannel underwear with a broad belt and big black boots, happily busy with the delivery of toys on snowy Christmas Eves. What many may not realize is that this image of Santa is an American, twentieth-century invention, created by Haddon Sundblom, a Swedish artist in the employ of Coca-Cola, and promoted relentlessly into the apotheosis of a folk hero. Before Sundblom's work, Santa Claus was represented in a variety of ways. In Europe he had traditionally been a serious, even severe, tall, thin man wearing any of the primary colors...The Coca-Cola Company built a small advertising industry around Sundblom's Coke-guzzling saint, who was invariably aided in completing his eleemosynary labors by the lift provided by sugar and caffeine -- an advertising effort aimed, obviously, primarily at young children who would, in the course of things, grow into succeeding generations of Coca-Cola customers. New Sundblom productions were used on billboards and in magazine advertisements year after year, until his last two paintings were completed in 1964." (I looked this up, and found more information about it on a Cokelore page which tries to refute the claim. I think, though, that the Cokelore web page supports the book's basic thesis, ending with: "This isn't to say that Sundblom had nothing to do with the modern Santa Claus, however: the ubiquity and popularity of his paintings and Coca-Cola advertising helped cement the image of the tall, robust Santa Claus (like an 'overweight superhero') in the public consciousness." Robust and smiling from drinking the caffeine drink Coke.)

The book jacket says that Bennett is a medical and science writer, and a graduate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law. Bonnie holds degrees in psychology and anthropology from Temple, and studied management and finance at Wharton, and has professional experience writing financial software systems. They go into depth with the seriousness you'd expect from their backgrounds.

If this review helped you decide that you'd like to buy the book, and you buy books from Amazon.com, you can follow this link to the book on Amazon.com and show your appreciation by letting me get the affiliate payment. Thank you!

11 February 2001
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