In this new feature, we’re asking Booklisters to give themselves a “shelf evaluation.” The rules are simple: pick any shelf in your home library, take a picture of it as is (no alphabetizing, no dusting), and then . . . explain your shelf!
Of the umpteen shelves in my home, I could have chosen to highlight literary fiction, crime novels, American history, art books, humor, classics, poetry, plays, books about films and filmmaking, graphic novels, reference books, or even books that I and my friends have published. So why this slender selection of three dozen guides to mixing drinks and living the life of a bon vivant?
It’s a genre I’ve always been attracted to. Years ago, before having kids, I aspired to make a career by writing about billiards, booze, and food—and while I took the first halting steps toward making that a reality, I soon learned that, for me, books were a better bet for paying the rent (if barely).
But I’ve always been attracted to drinks writing, especially early dispatches from the dawn of cocktail culture. Part of it is practical, as I generally prefer cocktails to wine and beer, and therefore require instructional manuals to keep the menu at my home bar fresh. The other part of it speaks to one of the key reasons I read anything: when I’m not reading to learn, I’m reading to escape. While some of you may prefer the charms of Downton Abbey and Mad Men to transport you back to allegedly more innocent times, I like nothing better than to curl up with the work of writers for whom a noontime tipple was considered a social requirement; men (alas, almost all of them) who were untroubled by such notions as “exercise” and “moderation”; who had never been confronted with the horrifying necessity of estimating their own blood alcohol content.
I like my nostalgia served in a pair of rose-colored glasses that I can peer through while I’m draining the contents.
This gentleman of infinite capacity is perhaps the last of the authentic boulevardiers. He holds the high office of official liquor sipper for the readers of Esquire. His days and nights are spent in Manhattan’s more opulent madhouses sipping, forever sipping, anything and everything of an alcoholic nature that flows from flagons, flasks or bottles. He reports his findings in mellifluously modulated scholarly prose. Fortunately, he is equipped with a complete set of innards, from stem to stern as it were, made to his own personal specifications by the Revere Copper and Brass Works at Rome, New York. Thus he has none of the limitations that nature has bestowed upon other and lesser savants of the saloon.
Daily he completes his rounds and as dawn waves its crimson wand above the roof of the Agash Refining Company in Mr. Bush’s Terminal, he pads swiftly to South Ferry where the municipal Charon oars him to his vine-clad bower in Staten Island. If he were touched by a careless or casual match he would burn with a clear blue flame.
In our own unregenerate way we prefer honest confession right here at the start. That per hour of elapsed time, man and boy, we probably have been happier when mildly looking into the ruddy cup than at other times. Even granting our lethal morning-after disease we question if willingly we would exchange even our hunting, fishing or blue water sailing experiences for those mellow and gorgeously spiffed hours!
(This from the man who dedicated volume 1, Being an Exotic Cookery Book: “Contrary to current routine, this volume is not dedicated to Publisher, Wife, Friend, Mistress or Patron, but to our own handsome digestive tract without which it never could have seen light of day.)
And let us not forget Kingsley Amis, who stated in On Drink (1973):
. . . leaving aside dipsomaniacs, most or many of whom are born, not made, I feel that there is very little we can safely add, in discussing our motives for drinking, to the verdict of the poet who said we do it because “we are dry, or lest we may be by and by, or any other reason why”.
This shelf holds a large proportion of my most treasured tomes. From a slipcased edition of the aforementioned Gentleman’s Companion to a scorched and tattered Burke’s Complete Cocktail & Drinking Recipes (1934) with clippings and handwritten notes tucked inside; from Stanley Clisby Arthur’s essential Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em (1937) to H. i. Williams’ classic 3 Bottle Bar (1943); from Frankly Speaking: Trader Vic’s Own Story (1973) autobiography to his original Bartenders Guide (tropical drinks back then were light on the syrup and heavy on the rum); to four of my five different editions of the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide; to the modern-day wisdom of Eric Felten and David Wondrich . . . I’ve spent many happy hours in these pages.
To answer the question posed at the top of this post, I now realize that, if anything, I have a reading problem. I should have heeded Amis, who warns against “using your drinks manual as dipsography, the alcoholic equivalent of pornography.”
The remedy for this sad state? “Reading must be combined with as much drinking experience as pocket and liver will allow.”
Well, the sun’s over the yardarm somewhere.