Editor’s note: In conjunction with the release yesterday of the paperback version of The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business (Belknap, 2021), Points is re-running this June 2019 interview with author David Courtwright. Points author interviews begin with the set question: “Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.” David Courtwright said he preferred conversations, so he talked to his bartender about The Age of Addiction.
Bartender: I hear you have a new book.
Courtwright: Just came out in May. I’ll have the draft IPA.
What’s the book about?
How addictions multiplied throughout human history. Even before civilization people discovered pleasurable drugs and pastimes like alcohol and gambling. They went on finding new ones. They traded, refined, manufactured, and digitized them to the point that we live in an age of addiction. Think about it. When you heard the word “addiction” forty years ago, what came to mind?
Drugs. Heroin. Junkies. Juicers, only back then we called them alcoholics.
Google the word now and you’ll find addiction to sugar, video poker, computer games, social media, internet porn, shopping, tanning, you name it.
Could be hype.
Some of it is. And some of it is science. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, promotes food-addiction studies.
What’s food got to do with drugs?
Our brains—well, some brains—react to food packed with sugar, salt, and fat like it was booze. People can lose control over eating the way they lose control over drinking. They join groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
They’re like AA?
Right down to the lingo. And it goes beyond eating. When I told friends I was writing a history of addictions, they all said, “You’ve got to include kids glued to their phones.” So I did. Behavioral addictions have become social facts.
What’s history got to do with social facts?
Historians explain their origins and how they changed over time. In The Age of Addiction, it’s a long time.
Give me the short version.
The history of addiction is intertwined with the history of vice, which is intertwined with the history of pleasure. Addictions are compulsive pursuits of transient, often disreputable pleasures that harm the individual and society.