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High Society: The Central Role of Mind-Altering Drugs in History, Science, and Culture
by Mike Jay
Publisher:
Park Street Press 
Year:
2010 
ISBN:
9781594773938 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 7/20/2011

Written initially as a guide to a an exhibition of the same name focusing on visual images about historical use of psychoactive substances, High Society is an impressively complete, concise and beautifully illustrated history of human use of these substances and their cultural, social, economic, and political importance. The book consists of three chapters, each a full-length essay. The first, “A Universal Impulse” is a description of the ubiquity of psychoactive drug use in early societies, as well as in our contemporary era. Jay takes a global look, discussing the use of ayahuasca, khat, kava, betel nut and other drugs. The second chapter, “From Apothecary to Laboratory” looks at the processes whereby plant medicines and intoxicants became objects of botanical and medical research and, eventually, the raw material from which pure active agents could be extracted. The third chapter, “The Drugs Trade” describes the importance of drug commodities in the processes of colonialism and the internationalization of trade during the colonial era, then switches to the present and discusses the international drug trade and the alcohol Prohibition movement which eventually has led to the still raging war on drugs.

Jay’s remarkable achievement here is in fully encapsulating the most important points of each of these themes/eras in a minimum amount of space. Only 150 pages or so long, with color or black and white glossy illustrations on almost every page, the book is presented as a visual history but Jay’s narrative transcends this. Such are Jay’s talents in telling this story and in picking what fascinating tidbits to include and what not to, this book would be almost as good without any illustrations whatsoever.

What emerges is an excellent introduction to the history of drugs: concise, readable, profound in its implications, and beautifully presented.

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