Courtwright announces his aim to do for drugs what William McNeill did for diseases in the classic study Plagues and...




A penetrating study of what the author deems one of the most significant events in world history: the “psychoactive revolution.”

The “big three” of that revolution, writes Courtwright (Violent Land, 1996), were alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated products, which all over the world have been considered essential fuel for conquest and conviviality alike. Though they’re known to have deleterious effects, he writes that “the sheer scale of their production, distribution, and consumption and the degree to which they were integrated into cultures around the world made them relatively impervious to prohibition.” The “little three”—opium, cannabis, and coca—are another matter; for all the efforts to control or quash their use, they remain fantastically profitable commodities that show no signs of disappearing. Courtwright traces the origins of these substances, showing how political and economic forces have combined to “transform the everyday consciousness of billions of people and, eventually, the environment itself.” His tale is endlessly fascinating, with oddments enough to enliven a thousand dissertations and cocktail parties. Of the mid-17th century, when coffee, distilled spirits, and tobacco became widely available, the author wryly observes that those who had lived through decades of plague, economic hardship, war, riots, and famine “were people who could use a smoke and a drink.” And drugs have figured prominently in history. Otto von Bismarck was “a heavy smoker, drinker, and all-around glutton” who developed a morphine habit late in life, while amphetamines, the sub rosa drug of choice for Americans throughout the 1950s, were a staple of the Third Reich and Allied powers to keep soldiers awake, alert, and full of fight.

Courtwright announces his aim to do for drugs what William McNeill did for diseases in the classic study Plagues and Peoples. He has succeeded admirably in a book likely to become a standard.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-674-00458-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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