How Books Drove Me to Drink

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Deborah Toner

Since embarking on the doctoral research that would eventually become my book, Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Mexico, I have been asked dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times how I ended up working on this subject. Some are surprised that you can write a serious history book about something like alcohol; others ask with a knowing smile if I do it for the tequila-based “fieldwork”. The answer is more simple, yet random: some books intervened to shape my interests and, ultimately, my life.

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The Dark Portal (Deptford Mice Series)

Among my favourite childhood memories are the Saturday morning trips we made to our local public library. I checked out so many detective mysteries and fantasy adventures featuring lovable animal characters: Robin Jarvis’s The Deptford Mice trilogy was a particular favourite. Oh, the tears I wept for little Piccadilly! At about age eleven, I read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights for the first time (of dozens) and started following a trail of the recommended books included in the back pages of such classics. The trail led me a couple of years later to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: this was my first experience of reading a novel that utterly baffled me and that sparked an interest in both history and literature as a way of learning about other cultures and our common humanity. It also made me very curious about Latin America, a part of the world that had only registered in my mind until that point as somewhere that produced very good football teams.Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 16.35.08

During my final years at school, and with the benefit of a fantastic history teacher, my interest in Latin America had the opportunity to develop, as we studied the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, reading Bernal Díaz’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain along the way. Díaz’s captivating descriptions of the indigenous cities, marketplaces, customs and conflicts in Mexico at that time, as well as his impassioned critique of other contemporary accounts of the same events, made me determined to study history – especially Latin American history – at university. There, Bernal Díaz featured again, most memorably as part of a wonderful course on the history of food in Latin America, where we studied issues as diverse as the ritual importance of chocolate in Aztec and Maya culture to the economically exploitative labour practices in modern sugar and coffee plantations.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 16.40.33Jeffrey Pilcher’s ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity was the stand-out monograph I encountered during my degree, representing a type of history that I simply hadn’t realised could be done. Two years later, I read about thirty novels for an undergraduate dissertation on alcohol and alienation in 1950s American literature. Two novels in particular forced me to think about the power and subtleties of language and perspective: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, whose unreliable and quite devious narrators opened up multiple ways of reading the story at the heart of each novel.

As I proceeded to graduate level study, elements of the interests these books had inspired came together – Mexican history, alcohol and food, literature and language – to form my doctoral research project and much of my future research. In my first excited forays into academic teaching, I got to discuss with students no fewer than three of the books that had inspired my own research journey: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Rabbit, Run. I wonder what those students are doing now?

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 16.50.53Dr. Deborah Toner is a lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Leicester. Her most recent book is Alcohol and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Mexico (University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

The image featured at the beginning of this post is by KittyKaht.