OUT OF IT: A Cultural History of Intoxication

Walton, Author, Stuart Walton, Author . Harmony $24 (384p) ISBN 978-0-609-61044-2

Trying to separate pleasure from pain and law from leisure, British journalist Walton doesn't quite succeed in systematizing a subject that lends itself more readily to laughter and forgetting. He does not lack a solid argument: "Intoxication is a universal human theme. There are no recorded instances of fully formed societies anywhere in history that have lived without the use of psychoactive substances." The missteps begin in early Christianity, when Walton deviates from his ostensible subject, the history of intoxication, and gets onto the more pedestrian issue of policing the use of intoxicants. In the next few chapters, there are hints of how the 18th-century craze for coffee lent itself to revolutionary thinking, why the nip before work went the way of the dodo, or when cigarette smoking became demonized. But though Walton is clearly aware of all of these possible avenues of exploration, the book drones on about units of alcohol and schedules of chemicals and other ways that the governments of the U.S. and Britain have spoiled the fun. Content to simply set up and knock down straw men, Walton fails to ask the more provocative questions of why we have this drive to blottodom and what its social effects actually are. The final chapters on moderation and excess and the association between art and intoxication are a bit livelier, but this fascinating and heady topic awaits definitive treatment. (Oct. 22)

Reviewed on: 07/29/2002
Release date: 10/01/2002
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