One of the most celebrated wine books in history is really a book about a book. George Saintsbury wrote Notes on a Cellar Book in 1920 and it has never been out of print. His cellar book was just a ledger he used to keep his cellar organized and to log notes about what he consumed. The book about the ledger is a collection of fascinating memories of a life devoted to wine and other spirits. Saintsbury was a prolific British literary critic and professor, prominent in his day, but his literary legacy is forgotten except for this little book about his wine cellar.
I’ve just begun to read through it but this passage in the Preface stood out. Saintsbury wrote this right after prohibition had become the law of the land in the U.S. and the temperance movement was gaining strength in Great Britain. Writing about the charges that alcohol abuse was rampant, Saintsbury writes:
As to abuse, abusus non tollit usum is the simple and sufficient reply to the fallacies drawn from that. But one may go further than this and boldly say, with a certainty of saying the truth, that for every evil deed that fact or fancy or the unscrupulous exaggeration of partisans can charge on alcohol, it has prompted a hundred good and kind ones; that for every life it has destroyed or spoiled it has made thousands happy; that much of the best imaginative work of the world has been due to its influence; and that it has, as has been amply shewn of late, given ‘more power to the elbow’ of stout workers and fighters in the best of causes.
That is a full-throated defense of alcohol. I’m not always a fan of utilitarian defenses of social practices but I would not be surprised, if we were to calculate the gains and losses from alcohol, that Saintsbury’s judgment would be vindicated. The small moments of pleasure and inspiration amplified a million times each day across the globe and through history surely add up to a pile of positive hedons that would thrill any Benthamite or their modern day equivalent—the bean counters in economics departments.