The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, by David T. Courtwright

Lennard Davis is intrigued by an exceptionally wide-ranging account of the many things on which humans get high

November 21, 2019
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Remember those TV shows that began with the host standing in front of a historic location telling you that art, or technology, or civilisation, began “here”? David Courtwright is that kind of authorial host.

In seeking the origins of our contemporary addictions, he takes the reader on a breakneck global tour of places, people, technologies, substances, practices, activities, performances, films and the like (this is a deliberately long list, but the reality of the book would require a much longer one). His central thesis is that the history of the human race is in essence the history of the cultivation of products and activities that are extraneous to survival but that appeal to our genetic desire to accrue pleasure. With the advent of industrialisation and global trade, this desire was doused with the accelerant of supercharged capital to create a wildfire of addictive consumption. The result of what Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism” is an unstoppable network of dopamine-driven global corporatism.

It is hard to disagree with this thesis. The strength of the book, however, lies in its compendious collection of examples. One admires the eclectic sweep of Courtwright’s catalogue of addictions, his sheer wealth of knowledge. At the same time, we are not all as capable of processing this clatter of information as he seems to be, so a kind of stunned numbness sets in after a few chapters.

One problem is that Courtwright, rightly or wrongly, defines addiction so broadly that it includes almost every human activity. A single paragraph can range from ice cream to Turkish water pipes to the Bronx Cocktail. The author comes across as an ideas junkie high on the topic of addiction. Like the proverbial person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, Courtwright continually seeks his next fix finding the thing you might least likely consider an addiction. For example, by defining “flow” – the feeling of getting lost in a challenging task – as an addiction, it must follow that learning something new is addictive. Surgeons, writes Courtwright, “find difficult operations ‘gratifying,’ ‘aesthetically pleasing,’ and ‘fun’”. He must then include others who experience addictive flow such as “masons, carpenters, weavers, [and] accountants”. I suppose it is good to think that accountants are addicted to their professions, but have we lost some precision when placing them next to drug addicts and paedophiles?

This problem isn’t Courtwright’s alone. The psychiatric profession has recently moved from a psychologically based approach to a medical one in which brain chemistry and function determines everything. In an extended section on food addiction, the book focuses approvingly on Nora Volkow, the current head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US. Volkow was responsible, with others, for promoting the “brain disease model”, which might be simply described as the notion that a “broken brain” creates the need for addiction. While this model is widespread, there are serious reservations about it. Without going into the whole debate, suffice to say that this book’s inclusion of so many substances and activities as addiction isn’t necessarily the only way to go.

While there is something fundamentally exciting about a book with large claims and a broad sweep of history, a cautious reader might be suspicious of a certain confident glibness that can result. Courtwright walks a fine line between specific expertise and overgeneralisation – an activity that for a scholar can indeed be addictive. But as with all addictions, the book offers many pleasures and rewards.

Lennard Davis is distinguished professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business
By David T. Courtwright
Harvard University Press, 336pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780674737372
Published 31 May 2019


Print headline: We’re all hooked on a feeling

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