Most of all though, this book is about alcoholism. As one reviewer correctly notes, London had a strong liking for intoxication. However, one would be wrong to think of this book as pro-drinking, London is fairly fanatical in his dislike of alcohol and what it eventually did to him and other young men of his age. However, the brilliance of these 'alcoholic memoirs' is that he successfully illuminates the thought processes of most intelligent persons that have drinking problems. You will come away from this book understanding why many people, even an almost super-human person like Jack London, can fall prey to this vice. An absorbing read, and the book has a much more reader friendly and 'modern' style than many of London's fiction.
Let me note that "John Barleycorn" is one of Jack London's best books, and the closest thing to an autobiography he ever wrote. Chapters XXXVI and XXXVII, where he describes the "White Logic," contain some the finest, most lyrical, most poetic writing he ever did.
He describes the minuses of alcohol, AND he describes the plusses of alcohol. He describes BOTH the minuses AND plusses vividly, with all the skill of a great writer. He is a man who LOVES alcohol. He is a man who knows he has been damaged by alcohol. He describes both.
He praises saloon-keepers:
"Saloon-keepers are notoriously good fellows. On an average they perform vastly greater generosities than do business men. When I simply had to have ten dollars, desperate, with no place to turn, I went to Johnny Heinhold. Several years had passed since I had been in his place or spent a cent across his bar. And when I went to borrow the ten dollars I didn't buy a drink, either. And Johnny Heinhold let me have the ten dollars without security or interest...."
Of course, he balances this by explaining how this is in saloon-keepers own interest, and says "this is not to exalt saloon-keepers."
He praises the physical strength alcohol provides:
"And here again we come to another side of many-sided John Barleycorn. On the face of it, he gives something for nothing. Where no strength remains he finds new strength. The wearied one rises to greater effort. For the time being there is an actual accession of strength. I remember passing coal on an ocean steamer through eight days of hell, during which time we coal-passers were kept to the job by being fed with whisky. We toiled half drunk all the time. And without the whisky we could not have passed the coal.
This strength John Barleycorn gives is not fictitious strength. It is real strength."
Of course, he balances this by saying "But it is manufactured out of the sources of strength, and it must ultimately be paid for, and with interest."
He makes alcohol sound exciting, dangerous, comradely, glamorous, manly. Alcohol is his adventure, like his other adventures--indeed, as he explains, an integral PART of his other adventures.
And in the end, when he adds it all up, plusses and minuses, where does HE strike the balance? What total does HE come up with?
"And so I pondered my problem. I should not care to revisit all these fair places of the world except in the fashion I visited them before. GLASS IN HAND! There is a magic in the phrase. It means more than all the words in the dictionary can be made to mean. It is a habit of mind to which I have been trained all my life. It is now part of the stuff that composes me. I like the bubbling play of wit, the chesty laughs, the resonant voices of men, when, glass in hand, they shut the grey world outside and prod their brains with the fun and folly of an accelerated pulse.
No, I decided; I shall take my drink on occasion."
I don't drink. John Barleycorn is the only thing I have ever read that has made me feel that maybe I've missed something...