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Opium: A History [Paperback]

Martin Booth
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 May 1997
Known to mankind since before the time of Christ, opium is probably the oldest and most widely used narcotic drug. Its dual properties - both as a painkiller and as a derivative, heroin - have lent it an ambiguity. On the one hand, its deadly addictive properties have given birth to the heroin industry which grows from strength to strength; despite the efforts of governments and law enforcers to crack down on it, the addict population is rising. On the other hand, production of the opium poppy is a vital income for peasant farmers in Third World countries. This work offers a history of the drug, examining its multi-faceted nature, spanning both countries and continents. It explores the drug's cultivation, spread, usages and influences.


Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pocket Books; New edition edition (5 May 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671853066
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671853068
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13.4 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,167,031 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.8 out of 5 stars
2.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive account of the history of opium 24 Jun 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Book arrived quickly and was in reasonable condition. Packed with facts and very thorough. treatment of the subject. Very well researched.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars More promise then substance 24 Aug 2007
By W. Bras
Format:Hardcover
This synopsis of this book looks promising but I was severely disappointed after reading it. The lack of any explanation of what the physical basis is of the addictive properties of the substance is a serious omission even in a book that is dealing with the history of its use.
The small episode about the effect of prayer meetings on users could have been given as an anecdote but without further evidence should not be treated as a fact.
The blunt statement that the drugs policy in the Netherlands is making the Netherlands a crime paradise with a percentage wise very high addiction rate is not backed up by any serious literature. In fact a simple web trawl points overwhelming to other facts. A more thorough investigation into the scientific literature shows it to be nonsensical. This, in combination with the prayer meetings, makes me suspicious of the writers agenda. The rather brief bibliography at the end also is rather unconvincing about the depth of research that has gone into this book. It appears that a lot of the material is anecdotal.
A missed chance.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I really enjoyed this book. It covers much ground but is well written and interesting throughout. It is very easy to dip in and out of and contains much of interest to those who wish to learn more about the economics of the British Empire and the history of China, Iran and India. After reading this it's easy to see why the British aren't much like in the Far East.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars bad printing 4 Aug 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I received the book on time and I didn't have enough time to send it back, otherwise I would have sent it back. The first few chapters I've read are good and I don't doubt the others aren't, but I received a misprint. Every letter had been printed in bold, which makes it hard to read and sometimes impossible to decipher letters. Otherwise, a good book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but scattershot 4 Dec 1999
By Hubcap - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Washington Post reviewer above got it right. Opium: A History is bursting with curious facts about a curious drug, but never ties it all together into a coherent theme. Or even several coherent themes. The writing isn't particularly good, either - call it workmanlike. That's surprising, as the author was nominated for a Booker Prize for his fiction. But just read the dreadfully dull opening paragraphs, a lackluster description of the opium poppy that sounds like it was lifted from a Petersen's Field Guide. The rest of the book doesn't get much better. The author is also fond of action-packed but meaningless phrases like, "Then in 1864 in China, things really began to happen." Yes, I'm sure. Things probably happened in 1863 and 1865 as well... A more serious flaw is the lack of footnotes or endnotes. The book claims to be a "History", but refuses to provide sources. So while it's full of interesting facts, I have no idea which facts are actually true. This is a pretty serious issue when, among other things, the author links the downing of the Pan Am flight off Lockerbie with CIA drug connections. The editors should have been ashamed to let that assertion go by unsourced. In the end I'd call Opium: A History a curiosity. If you want a general overview about this most sinister of drugs - you know who you are - you'll like the book.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Papaver somniferum 4 Nov 2001
By E. A. Lovitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Sleep and his brother Death figure prominently in Martin Booth's "Opium - A History." His subject is a two-headed god---bringing surcease from pain, but also addicting and killing its too-faithful followers.
Booth writes a truly fascinating and detailed history of opium's influence on the world's history, economies, and cultures. According to the author, opium has been used by man since prehistoric times. It was already under cultivation in Mesopotamia by 3400 B.C. He describes the wars that have been fought to control the opium trade, and nowadays the multi-billion dollar heroin industry. Nor does he neglect the social implications of an addicted population:
"For many addicts, heroin is favoured because, whilst allowing them to maintain full consciousness, they can withdraw into a secure, cocoon-like state of physical and emotional painlessness. Heroin is seen as an escape to tranquility, a liberation from anxiety and stress: for the poor, it is a way out of the drudgery of life, just as laudanum was for their forebears two centuries ago."
If much of your recent reading has been driven by current events, this book will open your eyes to the cultivation and processing of `papaver somniferum' throughout the `Golden Crescent' - a geographical area from Turkey to Tibet that includes the mountains of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Here is what the author has to say about growing poppies in the Mahaban Mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border:
"It is perfect poppy country with suitable soil, steep and well-drained hillsides, long hours of sunshine and the right amount of rainfall. There being no other forms of income apart from agriculture, it follows that the opium poppy provides an ideal cash crop."
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (10/03/2001) the drug trade is the primary income source for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. U.S. State Department intelligence information on drug trafficking in the region indicates that the Taliban has collected at least $40 - $50 million this year through a tax it imposes on the opium poppy crop.
There are hazards to cultivating the poppy. "...Farmers can tell when the time to harvest is nigh because they wake in the morning with severe headaches and even nausea. Harvesters may absorb opium through their skin and excise officers and traders who come into frequent contact with it can also be affected."
Booth gives his readers a very well-researched and fascinating look at the seductive flower whose pharmacological properties came to mean all things to all men: poets; farmers; soldiers; doctors; murderers; terrorists; kings; and cancer patients.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Riddle Still Unsolved 4 Aug 2001
By Timothy Ritter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
.... It is this blessing-and-curse quality of the opiates that is the foundation of Martin Booth's sweeping work, "Opium". After 350 pages of truly engrossing history, he sums up with a few words: "�few doctors would be hard-hearted enough to practise medicine without it. Millions have been enslaved by it: yet it has also destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures, and invidiously corrupted human society to its very core."
To those who would legalize the stuff and be done with it, I recommend the chapter on Britain in the Industrial Revolution. Mothers fed their babies "soothing syrups" purchased legally at the local apothecary. Such syrups contained laudanum or morphine in order to quiet the crying of babies and help them sleep. These things the syrups did, but they also addicted the children, so that by the age of three or four they resembled "little old men or (were) wizened like a little monkey".
Those who favor the get-tough methods currently in vogue in the US would do well to read of the ups and downs of the international traffic over the last two centuries. The odds of defeating a business as lucrative as heroin seem to be very slim indeed. The emperor of China couldn't do it, and neither have any of the US administrations. In fact, China seems to be one of the hotbeds of the trade, and US consumption is high. Booth doesn't make any recommendations, for it's not a public policy book, as is Jill Jonnes' equally excellent history, which recommends stigmatization of drug use and conducting a war against the trade. "Opium" rather shows where we've been (we being just about every society on the globe) and the current state of things. As for the future, Booth doesn't hazard a guess or push a solution. He doesn't have to. His illumination of the long and tortured history of humans and the poppy is enough to suggest a middle course, neither drug war nor drug festival.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Realpolitik of Opium 13 July 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Martin Booth, a British novelist and documentary film writer, has written a readable monograph on the social history and politics of world opium use. The first 6 chapters deal with the early medicinal use of opium and the 19th century discoveries of morphine and heroin; they progress through the use of opium for pleasure and artistic inspiration to end in addiction and degradation. Mr. Booth implies that many prominent artists, writers and rulers were "addicts" though he often presents little evidence to validate these claims. The remaining 10 chapters of the book deal with the lucrative opiate trade from its earliest beginnings through the present day, and its role in narcoterrorism, narcotourism and Realpolitik. The author clearly chooses to emphasize the nefarious, rather than the beneficial characteristics of opium and its alkaloids. He did not include any maps, figures, or footnotes that would heighten the interest level of 353 pages of text. If you are looking for information on the medical and biological aspects of opiates, this book will be of little use. Mr. Booth devotes little or no attention to the great advances made in our understanding of opiate pharmacology during the twentieth century: the synthesis of opiate antagonists, the discoveries of multiple opioid binding sites and endogenous opioid peptides in the body, or the recent cloning of opioid receptors. The neurobiological underpinnings of opioid addiction and the evolution of antiaddiction treatments based on this scientific foundation are also given little consideration. Nevertheless, "Opium: A History" is a concise source of information on the socioeconomics and politics of the opium trade that has occurred over the past two centuries. END
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What You Didn't Know About Opium... 18 Mar 2007
By Dakota - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Opium: A History" by Martin Booth is an engrossing work of nonfiction that details human reliance on opium for thousands upon thousands of years and how it has affected us physically, emotionally, economically, and morally.

The book starts with a discussion on the poppy flower itself and how opium is derived from the plant's sap and ending on the efforts of international traffickers, government enforcement agencies, and doctors alike in either expanding or eradicating addiction to opium. In between, you will learn about opium's horrible effects on the body, Britain's establishment of the opium trade in China and later efforts to destroy it (counter to the rest of the world's reliance on opium to support their economies), the transformation of opium to heroin, the use of opium to inspire artists around the world, and the quiet and insidious opium trade that goes on with the permission of many governments to support war efforts and other international issues.

To me, the most fascinating thing I learned from this book was the amount of people addicted to the drug in the past because it was such an important painkiller/medicine and because it helped quiet fussy babies. You can't help finish this book and wonder if it is even possible to win a war against a drug that has shaped the lives of so many humans and so many societies for thousands of years.

I personally found the book easy to read, though I preferred the first two-thirds of the book. This part of the book covered the drug itself, its health affects, and its early history up to the nineteenth century. I wasn't as interested in the international trafficking part of the book (the last one-third), probably because so many people, organizations, and countries were mentioned that I lost track of which country was fighting who and who was doing what with heroin or opium. Still, the book is an eye-opening read. The excruciating description of opium withdrawal should be mandatory reading for high school kids to help stymie any attempt at trying the drug.
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