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Full Review
Writing on Drugs
by Sadie Plant
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case and Rendi Case, 2/16/2007

This is a coauthored review by one who recommends this book and one who does not. Both Rendi and I have read this book and whereas I found this book to be little more than annoying, Rendi enjoyed it. We realize that some readers may appreciate this book for the same reasons that Rendi enjoyed it and other readers may regret purchasing this book for the same reasons that I did. I had thought of a good way to explain why I did not appreciate this book and as it turns out this also a good explanation of why Rendi enjoyed it.

Imagine two people have bought tickets to a college lecture entitled “Writing on Drugs” which, as the title suggests, was supposed to be about historic (non-medical) literature concerning and/or inspired by psychoactive drugs and the influence of this literature and the drugs themselves on Western culture and world economics in the last few hundred years.

One person had been trying to collect information on the historic literature on drugs and was in need of some sort of professional chronology of this literature. Armed with a note pad and pen, ready to take notes, this person was hoping to get some good information; authors, titles, publishing dates, and so on. The other person, being much less detail-oriented, was simply hoping to enjoy a good talk on this subject.

In the actual lecture, the speaker seemed quite knowledgeable about the topic but unable or unwilling to present her knowledge with any sense of order, consistency or focus. Rather, she rambled on and meandered off track for most of the talk spending only a small portion of the time actually discussing literature pertaining to drugs. It seemed as if she had the potential to give a good, orderly talk on the topic but showed up too high to do so. The person took few notes because little note-worthy information was given and half way through he put down his pen and pad in disgust. The other person sat back and enjoyed the meandering off-topic ramble for what it was – interesting.

This book is parallel to this hypothetical lecture by the seemingly stoned hypothetical lecturer. Depending on what you would hope to get from a book entitled “Writing on Drugs”, you may or may not like this book.

I, for one, was hoping for dates, authors and book titles; not necessarily in a tight chronological order, but I hoped that I could at least gain some sort of orderly (even if only partial) list after taking notes and arranging them to my suiting. But Plant often gives authors without book titles and book titles without dates or even any indication of what era the works of literature were written or published in. Inexcusably, quotes are given without sources in the main text or even in notes. How can one quote a book without giving an author or book title?

Plant is also frustratingly inconsistent. As one would expect, she discusses DeQuincey, Coleridge, Ellis, Ludlow and others. But she gives only scant mentions of Huxley and other important authors, little more than tenuously relevant quotes from William S. Burroughs, and neglects to mention the likes of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-fictional Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If she considers Freud’s professional works on cocaine to be within the scope of this book, why not crucial works of Richard E. Schultes, R. Gordon Wasson and the like? Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s ground-breaking book The Psychedelic Experience is mentioned, but what about the important works of Huston Smith, Stan Groff, Jonathan Ott and many others? If she can astutely mention the obscure historical fact that the occultist Aleister Crowley administered mescaline to the audience of his theatrical ritual “Rites of Eleusis” then why not his seminal essays on hashish? What about Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods? Why not Ram Dass’ Be Here Now? If Plant misses or declines to mention so many books that I only chanced upon by browsing through mainstream book stores, then how many more books has she missed or declined to mention? I shudder to think, especially because I paid good money for her Writing on Drugs. Perhaps she should have titled it “Random and Incomplete Discussions of Writings on Drugs and Other Loosely Related Topics”.

There is also a lack of focus in this book. Plant discusses some of what Sigmund Freud wrote concerning cocaine and how his use of cocaine deeply effected his formulation of his thinking on psychology, which in was a huge influence of psychology as a whole. But then she goes on to discuss psychology in general and for too long. Interesting, but off-topic. She also discusses the neurological mechanics of how some drugs work in the brain, the economics of the opium trade in the colonial era, the evolution of drug prohibition, and other topics related to drugs but only loosely related to literature or else not related at all. Again, perhaps this book should have been publicized as a work on drugs and civilization and other loosely related topics, not as a book concerning literature on drugs.

Indeed, I jokingly voiced the question of whether the book title indicates that its subject is about literate pertaining to drugs or that it is a book written by an author while on drugs. It reads like a book on the literature of drugs written by an author while on drugs. Unlike a lecturer who perhaps got too stoned just before their talk and who blew a single chance at giving a good speaking engagement, an author cannot give the same excuse. A book takes considerable time to write and the author has the chance to rework, rewrite, revise and edit their manuscript while sober. Unless an author has a problem ever being sober, I can see no excuse why a non-fiction book should be sent to press in such a form. Many musicians have particular nights where they put on a bad concert because of they were too drunk that or high, but the same excuse can not be used to explain a bad album created over months of different recording sessions.

I would give this book 2 out of 5 stars. But to be fair, Rendi will now give his opinion…

Unlike Justin, I enjoyed this book. Justin is more detail oriented – he reads exclusively non-fiction literature and he reads to learn – so I can understand how such a reader would be frustrated by Sadie Plant’s presentation. I, on the other hand, read for enjoyment and found this book to be very interesting. I also have learned a lot that I did not expect to get out of a book on drug literature. In his Food of the Gods Terence McKenna discusses, among other things, the role of the opium trade on the economics and politics of the colonial era but in this book Plant goes into much more gratifying detail of this underplayed aspect of history.

Plant also goes into some detail about a number of other interesting subtopics related to drugs in history. I had heard that speed was used by the Third Reich and had wondered if Hitler was a speed freak. But I did not know that soldiers and leaders on both sides of the war used so much speed, making rash, aggressive and paranoid decisions with the lives of so many mortals. Many of us know that Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine but Plant gives us a good bit of the history of Coca-Cola, cocaine and the gradual withdrawal of cocaine from their formula just before there were legal restrictions on the drug. She also talks about the widespread use of opium, cannabis and other drugs in cough syrup, “medicine” to quiet teething babies, and so on.

I would imagine there are other books that go into more detail on this, but I found Plant’s chapters on the hidden politics of cocaine and heroin to be fascinating. I had read hints about the sordid webs of secret underhanded dealings involving U.S. government agencies, foreign drug cartels and corrupt governments, the United Nations, the Taliban, Vietnam, Laos, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on but in this book Plant goes into enough detail to clarify but not bore a reader such as myself. I, for one, did not know that the Taliban got much of it’s money from heroin derived from the poppy fields in Afghanistan – though I should have suspected. After reading this book I wonder if, like Vietnam, the invasion of Afghanistan had a lot to do with taking over poppy fields for the lucrative heroin black market than for the idealistic reasons the American public swallows hook, line and sinker.

If I were to attend that hypothetical lecture, I would have relaxed, sat back and listened with interest while Justin sat there feeling a bit cheated out of his money. Justin is right when he says that only a portion of this book pertains to literature about drugs but I thought it was a good read anyway. I recommend it. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars. Since Justin gives it 2 and I give it 4, we must average this to 3 stars.

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