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Between the Lines: You Say You Want a Resolution ...
(January 2002)
By David Pitt

Happy New Year! Now it's time to stop doing all the things that are bad for you.

If your resolution this year is to quit smoking - about time, too - check out La Diva Nicotina: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), by Iain Gately. 'Smoking,' Gately, writes, 'is the quickest way into the blood stream short of a hypodermic needle,' and if that doesn't make you feel like a drug addict you should read it again, out loud.

Tobacco has a long and - for a while, anyway - honorable history. The Mayans smoked as a form of prayer (although they also smoked purely for pleasure). A French ambassador in the mid-1550s snagged some tobacco cuttings from a Portuguese botanist and took them home with him. He experimented with the plant, tried to isolate its reputed healing powers. Eventually he found he could cure certain tumors with an ointment made out of tobacco leaves, and tobacco suddenly became an accepted medicinal herb.

The ambassador's name, in case you're curious, was Jean Nicot.

While tobacco was gaining respect as a medical marvel, it was also causing some concern. Francis Bacon remarked on the plant's addictive powers ('those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom'). However tobacco's enormous curative powers - it was claimed that tobacco could cure cancer (how's that for irony?), 'any illness of any internal organ,' even the black plague - kept it respectable, even as some countries were trying to ban it entirely.

In the early 1600s, Russia declared tobacco consumption a capital offence. 'Its favorite punishments were slitting the lips of a smoker, or an excruciating, and usually fatal, flogging with the knout. Occasionally, offenders were castrated, but if they were rich, they were exiled to Siberia and their property was confiscated.'

That's a pretty strong deterrent, but here's an even stronger one. In the mid-1600s the Dutch bought the Cape of Good Hope from the Hottentots, 'a remarkable race who had integrated tobacco into their unusual culture in a manner which has never been imitated. On achieving puberty, a Hottentot boy was given his first cigar while his mother bit off and ate his left testicle.'

If that don't make a boy think twice about smoking, nothin' will. (We'll pause here for a moment while those of you with abruptly-crossed legs untangle yourselves.)

La Diva Nicotina is a fascinating history of tobacco and its impact on the cultures of the world. For a slightly different look at the way the addictive plant has altered society, pick up Dan Zegart's Civil Warriers: The Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry (Delta, paperback).

Zegart, an investigative journalist, spent five years traveling with Ron Motley, an attorney who specialized in large personal-injury lawsuits against seemingly unbeatable corporations. Motley made his mark on the legal world prosecuting cases against asbestos manufacturers, then - after his mother's death of emphysema - segued into tobacco litigation. This was before tobacco lawsuits became the giant industry they are today, before the world was changed forever by the things we started to hear.

Civil Warriors is a legal thriller, as lively and spellbinding as any piece of fiction, a courtroom drama that penetrates to the heart of the issue - how much did the tobacco companies know, when did they know it, and did they conspire to keep the cigarette-buying public from finding out? - with abundant intelligence and clarity.

And speaking of intelligence and clarity, you must read Ashes to Ashes (Vintage, paperback), Richard Kluger's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 chronicle of the modern history of the tobacco companies: their sales strategies, their 'scientific' testing designed to make smoking appear safe and healthy, their manipulation of the facts to make them point to outrageously unfounded conclusions. It is a deeply informative, and sometimes frightening, book.

Now, I don't want to get too personal or anything, but if your particular addiction is something a little, um, more extreme, here's The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 1500-2000 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardcover), by Richard Davenport-Hines. If you thought tobacco had a long history, well, let's just say that the world's oldest written language,
Sumerian, has a reference to 'the plant of joy,' otherwise known as the opium poppy.

Like tobacco, addictive drugs entered society as medicines. Opium was used by early Egyptians as a painkiller; the Romans used it to treat 'elephantiasis, carbuncles, liver complaints, epilepsy and scorpion bites' (how's that for versatility?). Laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol, was a popular cure-all from Helen of Troy's day right up through the Victorian era.

The Pursuit of Oblivion (I love that title) is a remarkably comprehensive, smoothly written book. It is extremely informative - although, having said it's comprehensive, I should note that it appears to contain no mention of one of the funniest movies ever made, Reefer Madness (1936), a serious-minded anti-marijuana film that had 'em rolling in the aisles. But never mind: there's a lot in here, and it's all most interesting.

What Davenport-Hines does extremely well is chart the evolution of narcotics by showing how new drugs were invented to counteract the older ones. Opium became laudanum, and then came laudanum addiction; morphine was introduced as the cure for laudanum addiction; cocaine came in as the cure for morphine addiction; heroin was marketed as a 'non-addictive alternate to morphine.'

Meanwhile the cures were much worse than the addictions they were meant to alleviate, and finally governments around the world figured out that all these so-called medicinal wonders were killing off large numbers of people, not to mention altering some people's behavior in very unsettling ways. What followed was a global flurry of legislation and regulation that turned these once-respectable products into evil, nasty, disreputable things no upstanding citizen should even consider taking. Which is pretty much where things stand today.

Planning on cutting back on the ol' bubbly this year? Resolving to make a six-pack last longer than a weekend? You might want to crack open Drink: A Social History of America (Carroll & Graf, hardcover), by Andrew Barr. This 1999 book is what they call a 'cultural history,' which means it tracks the development of society by focusing on one element of it - in this case, alkeehol. (Barr has produced four previous books about wine and drinking, but if you think I'm going to say he's addicted to writing books about booze you're crazy.)

Like smokes 'n' drugs, alcohol had a rather noble beginning. In Europe, around 5000 B.C., the ability to produce wine from cultivated (as opposed to wild) vines was the sign of a sophisticated society. In America, in the 1600s, Indians - Barr refuses to use the term 'Native American,' which, he correctly explains, properly belongs to anyone born in the United States - believed alcohol was a gift from the Manitou, the Supreme Being. They got drunk, you might say, religiously. (Manhattan was originally called Manahachtanienk, meaning 'the island where we all got drunk.')

Once he's given a firm grasp of the background, Barr concentrates on the U.S. How did 'social drinking' turn into something far more ominous? How did Prohibition alter the way Americans viewed alcohol? What measures have been taken to address alcohol addiction, and how successful have they been? It's a tricky, complicated subject, and Barr does an admirable job of educating us while never making it too obvious that that he's educating us, if you take my meaning.

Do we have any diamond smugglers in the audience? Don't raise your hands - you don't know who might be watching - but do pick up a copy of Matthew Hart's Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession (Viking, hardcover). Hart, a journalist who writes about diamonds for a variety of publications, charts the modern history of diamonds, beginning with the 1869 discovery of a crystal on a South African farm. There was a tremendous diamond rush, and an enormous cartel that controlled the world's diamond supply for more than one hundred years, then an entirely new rush in the Canadian Northwest Territories in the 1990s, when one of the world's richest diamond fields was discovered nestled against the Arctic Circle.

Hart spends some time on the dark side of the diamond trade - the smugglers, the traders, the back-room deals that go hand-in-hand with any large enterprise. He also explains, in fairly simple (but not simplistic) terms, what makes a diamond so special, and why it's so difficult to find the darn things, no matter how much money you spend looking for them. Diamonds are, in their own way, controlled substances - controlled by nature, controlled by the companies that refine and distribute them. And diamond-hunting can be, for some people, an addiction, as powerful as any drug.

Speaking of diamonds, here s Hope: Adventures of a Diamond (Random House), by Marian Fowler. It's the sometimes moving, sometimes raucous story of the Hope Diamond, the world's largest and (so they say) loveliest blue diamond. It's been around for a while, three centuries give or take, has been owned, or worn, by (again, so they say) Marie Antoinette, Napoleon III, Harry Winston, and Louis XIV. This is a very entertaining dual history - Fowler writes not only about the diamond, but about the cultures that have embraced and lusted after it - but, inexplicably, there is no photo section. Shouldn't a book about the world's most famous and beautiful diamond include some pictures of the thing, some pictures of the people associated with it? This seems a strange omission. Still, it's a darn good read.

If you ve read Andrew Barr's Drink, and you're thirsty for more (sorry), check out Sniffing the Cork (Atria Books), by Judy Beardsall with C.B. deSwaan. Beardsall's been in the wine trade for a couple of decades, so I guess it's fair to assume she knows what she's talking about; lord knows I don't have a clue about this stuff - or didn't before cracking the covers of this marvellously informative little ditty. Subtitled 'And Other Wine Myths Demystified,' the book covers the basics (red or white with our meal?) and a lot of fairly advanced stuff, too (like the connection between wine and health). Until now, all I knew about wine I learned from a Columbo episode (Any Old Port in a Storm, if you're interested, with Donald Pleasance as the special guest murderer). Now I know a whole bunch more.

And if Davenport-Hines's Pursuit of Oblivion has whetted your appetite, why not pick up Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (Thomas Dunne Books), by Dominic Streatfeild, a British documentary-film producer. Talk about comprehensive: Streatfeild starts way back in 1499, with Amerigo Vespucci's discovery of two important things: South America, and some leaves that made people feel really, really weird: coco leaves, which gave the world cocaine. Half a millennium later, coke is a massively big business, bringing in more than - get ready for your eyes to bug out - the combined revenues of McDonald's, Kellogg's, and Microsoft. Cocaine's twisty-turny history, from being a useful part of a medical kitbag (it was used as an anaesthetic by the Incas) to soft-drink additive to scourge of mankind, is laid out in all its glorious, unsavoury detail. It's a lively story, told in a lively style: the perfect combination.

You say you want a resolution? Well, you know, these books oughta give you some ideas. Happy reading.
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