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3 october 2015

I expected there to be some gimmick to Water: A Global History, Ian Miller's contribution to the Reaktion Edible series. Maybe it would be about water-based cuisines, soups and stews and the like. Maybe it would be about boiling and steaming and braising – or more specialized water cuisine that I've enjoyed over the years, like Chinese white-cooking and Italian acqua pazza. But no, it's about potable water. That seems rather general, but as Miller points out, plain potable water is in unusually large supply these days, and has never been something that humanity has been able to take for granted for long.

As Miller notes, the Roman Empire had a better water system than any in subsequent centuries till the nineteenth century, and still far better than many parts of the world have today. As an Edible book, Water does not have a remit to stray very far into the theme of hydropolitics, but Miller touches on the fraught relationship between society and water in his final chapter.

As important as water was for so many purposes, though, even in Roman times people drank comparatively little of it. The ancients and medievals observed that animals universally drink water (44, 65); by implication, humans were supposed to drink a better class of beverage. Wine and beer were developed as alternatives to the diciness of ancient water, and spirits as primeval water-purifiers. But wine and beer and spirits were also essentially human drinks and thus inherently nobler than H2O.

I don't mind wine or beer or spirits, mind you, but I'm a much bigger water drinker. I just cracked open an orange-colored can of Pamplemousse La Croix to get me through writing this paragraph. I drink so many cans of La Croix every day that my partner is starting to worry. There are always blue and orange and white dead soldiers scattered here and there around the house in various states of crushedness. I tell her, as vices go, it is not the worst I could possess.

But like any American who buys water, I sometimes ask myself why I can't make do with the flatter but equally healthy stuff out of the tap – with a little lemon or lime squeezed in, even healthier, and still considerably cheaper. Miller charts the curious dynamic of the water market in the U.S. and other Western countries. As soon as reliable and vanishingly inexpensive water was piped into all our homes, we started to pay for bottled water, at markups that even early-modern water porters could not have dreamed of.

Sometimes these premiums were associated with curative properties. Miller charts the rise of the big mineral-water firms, almost always from quasi-medicinal beginnings: Perrier, Evian, Badoit. Spring water has long had healthy connotations (just as river water near cities has had filthy ones). I remember taking a bath on the row in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, years ago. As the attendant was filling my tub, he got a paper cup and made me drink some of the bathwater. Well, not what I was already sitting in. I felt healthier. I felt like this was not your usual bath, anyway.

But my daily six or eight cans of La Croix don't seem to have many healthy properties, except perhaps insofar as they prevent me from drinking six or eight cans of Shiner Bock instead. Americans love our now-ubiquitous flimsy bottles of what's really just bottled tapwater, with their miniature and hard-to-replace bottlecaps. But I like my water carbonated, mainly so that it has any texture at all. My survival vocabulary as I travel across Europe always includes how to ask for it fizzy: mit Kohlensäure, avec gaz, gassata, med brus.

In addition to plain and fizzy water, Miller makes brief forays into some of the more watered-down of the soft-drink tribe (lemonades, sodas, and squashes), and also treats ice as a cooler and moderator of other beverages. I don't like ice very much. I like my water undiluted. Speaking of which, my partner just scooped my crumpled Pamplemousse empty off the floor. I told her it was there in the cause of literary criticism.

Along the way Miller provides quite a bit of water lore. Mark Twain on the inflationary properties of soda water and Lord Byron on the comparative merits of wine and water (93) have a sharp edge. I didn't see one of my favorite characterizations of the fluid, though, Bernard Shaw's reflection that one cannot taste water because it's always in one's mouth (an ever-available metaphor for unmarked subjects). And I was disappointed by a bowdlerization of one of the most famous reflections on water, one made by W.C. Fields. Miller quotes Fields as "bluntly" saying (29): "I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it."

But the original line is just four words. Why don't you drink water, Bill?

"Fish fuck in it."

Miller, Ian. Water: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.