A provocative examination of the history of exploration as a quest for new and improved ways to change our minds.




Everybody must get stoned: That’s the great lesson of history, driven home by this elucidating survey.

According to Breen (History/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz), the quest for drugs has been a constant of human history, propelling the rise of empires in the modern era. By “drug,” he adds by way of qualification, the author includes a wide variety of substances both recreational and medicinal, some of them quite dubious: “Eating the powdered flesh of an Egyptian mummy may cure the plague….Possessing an enemy’s toenail clippings may allow you to kill them.” Between-the-lines reading offers intriguing possibilities: It’s not hard to liken the doings of the Portuguese Empire, by far the most effective of all drug-seeking powers, and the British Empire that overtook it as rival drug cartels. What is certain, argues Breen, is that the Portuguese “spent much of their first decades in the Americas stumbling in the dark, trying and usually failing to make sense of the hallucinogens, poisons, stimulants, and remedies that surrounded them.” Apply science to a recreational substance, and you often get medicine, from CBD oil to morphine, with the “pristine sterility of the pharmacy” replacing the dusty shelves of the antiquarian; apply it to a remedy, as with quinine, and you get a lucrative patent, giving rise to the modern pharmaceutical industry. All reason enough to chase after drugs, a bewildering variety of which marched into European markets following the Columbian exchange: Samuel Johnson’s dictionary includes definitions for many of these novelties, including agaric (“a drug of use in physick, and the dying trade”) and nepenthe (“a drug that drives away all pains”). Breen makes a fine case for his title, which he suggests is more appropriate than the Age of Reason—and for reasons good and true.

A provocative examination of the history of exploration as a quest for new and improved ways to change our minds.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8122-5178-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Univ. of Pennsylvania

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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