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Opium: A History
by Martin Booth
ISBN 0312186436 / 9780312186432 / 0-312-18643-6
Publisher Thomas Dunne Books
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With personages from Khun Sa to Coleridge to Kurt Cobain populating its far-ranging pages, Opium: A History provides a comprehensive look at the drug as it's been used, abused, fought over, and profited from throughout the millennia. In all likelihood, one of the first medicinal drugs known to mankind, opium and its derivatives have eased and caused suffering in almost equal measure, a fact that the evenhanded Booth takes pains to point out. In fact, he quotes rock musician Frank Zappa with approbation: "A drug is neither moral nor immoral--it's a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats it as if consumption bestowed a temporary license to act like an asshole." Booth's book traces opium's history from the first evidence of poppy cultivation (possibly as early as 4,000 B.C.) to the drug wars of today, exploring its uses in different cultures, its roles in British and Chinese political affairs, its use by artists and musicians, and its horrifying ramifications for addicts.
Booth writes with admirable attention to detail, if very little Úlan. Plowing through some of his sentences is a little like chewing on a mouthful of sawdust: "There are several reasons suggested for the popularity of the hypodermic but the primary one is the lowering standard of heroin purity caused by the success of legislation on production and by the selling methods employed by Italians who took over distribution from Jewish gangs, leading to an increase in price and higher levels of adulteration." It's enough to drive a reader to drugs. Nonetheless, the power of his narrative can't be entirely erased by the unwieldiness of his prose. The book is filled with striking images and surprising facts--for instance, opium-addicted Victorian children, fed "soothing syrups" by minders to keep them quiet. Undernourished, yellow-skinned, in the words of one contemporary observer, they "shrank up into little old men or wizened like a little monkey." In the end, Booth finds few answers to the problems posed by the opium trade--a scourge he says has "destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures and invidiously corrupted human society to its very core." In writing this exhaustively researched history, however, Booth brings us that much closer to understanding--and thereby conquering--the most tenacious of human addictions. --Mary Park [via]