Michael Gerber reviews "Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine" by Stephen Braun.

By Michael Gerber

Published November 18, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Caffeine and alcohol, the world's two most popular drugs, have very complex effects on the human brain. "Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine," does not. You pick it up, it puts you to sleep. So simple, so devastating. Luckily, the only side effect of "Buzz" is a powerful sense of time passing whenever you read it.

After years of research, neurologists are discovering precisely how these drugs scramble our brains, and why we like it so much when they do. This is a worthy topic, but since so many of us are perpetually under the influence of one drug or the other (or, God forbid, both at once), the effects of caffeine and alcohol are as much sociological as pharmacological. The author of "Buzz," Stephen Braun, avoids this opportunity by spending more time on the human brain than on the human mind -- before you know it, you're failing high school bio all over again. When "Buzz" discusses how coffee came to the West, or how both drugs are truly an international language -- hear the one about the Buddhist monk tearing off his eyelids to make the first tea plants? -- it's fascinating. But when "Buzz" plants you in Joe's Stomach Lining, or tries to explain GABA receptors, nighty-night.

Much of "Buzz" is spent refuting the supposed health benefits of alcohol and caffeine, which strike me as whistling in the dark anyway. And even though the book is clearly written, the insights it provides are mere party chat, e.g., the ethanol molecule is small (even for a molecule) and looks somewhat like a pudgy Labrador Retriever.

In the end, "Buzz" suffers from a problem not of its own making: if a new study shows that Sanka makes mice tap dance and type 100 words per minute, it doesn't mean spit for us two-leggers. This responsible waffling is to be expected on the pro-science circuit; but in a popular book like "Buzz," it tends to make every point vastly underwhelming. Books like "Buzz" are what keep caffeine so darn popular -- and there's a perverse elegance in that, intentional or not.

Michael Gerber

Michael Gerber lives in New York City. He recently edited a parody of The Wall Street.

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