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Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the 19th century

Author: Mike Jay

Cover design: Marie Lane  

It is a fascinating book... Jay is excellent is on the emergence of medical science as a social force.

W.N.Herbert in Scotland on Sunday

As well as exploding the fantasy that a society without drugs used to exist, Jay clarifies the question of why so many of them were the process, he tells a series of fascinating stories about the first individuals to describe their effects, and how their use spread.

Peter Carty in Time Out

Intelligent, witty, cogent and a bit pissed off, Emperors of Dreams is one of the best books on drugs I have come across, and should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with drug legalisation.

Julian Keeling in The New Statesman and Society

The changing status of the coca leaf is one of the many stories told by Mike Jay in his engaging survey of drug use in the 19th century.... Fear of pleasure, as Jay shows in this splendid book, is perhaps the most powerful motive in the hysterical anti-drug rhetoric that has created the mess we are in today.

Joan Smith in The Independent on Sunday

Meticulously researched, compulsively readable and unfailingly fascinating...more than just an inebriating travelogue of days gone by, Jay's book is important in its even-handed, dispassionate and intelligent discussion of such incendiary topics as decriminalisation and legalisation. His closing chapter on temperance and prohibition is perhaps the most level-headed prose ever written on the subject.

Gary Lachman in The Fortean Times

An excellent book... it states with precision as well as poetry the nature of the drug experience.

Pick of the Week by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian

Mike Jay has built a necessary bridge between scholarship and the illicit enthusiasm of drug culture...He does not disdain conventional drug history, but has absorbed it into a work that is literary in the broadest sense - rich in sociology and politics as well as in poetry and letters...Jay relishes his storytelling, and keeps a steady hand on his source material. Emperors of Dreams is a book for aficionados, who savour not only good writing but also the recollection, in tranquillity, of altered states.

Marek Kohn in The Independent

Drugs? A contentious subject for any book. Sticking two fingers up at the orthodox view of drugs in society? Even more so. Yet by studying drugs from a historical perspective, Jay shrewdly gives himself far more breathing space to state his case, which is that the modern war on drugs is based on a very dodgy background encompassing xenophobia, racism, money-making and confusion.

The Scotsman

Mike Jay's sensible yet stylish book is the first attempt to survey the nineteenth-century drug scene at of the pleasures of Jay's approach lies in showing that drugs did not have the histories we might, from a present-day perspective, expect....a fine book.

Dr Roy Porter in The Times Higher Education Supplement

Utterly compelling social history of drugs. Humphry Davy, Thomas De Quincey, Conan Doyle, Sigmund Freud, Baudelaire and Gautier all figure, but it’s the drugs themselves –nitrous oxide, opium, cannabis, cocaine, mescaline- that are the protagonists. In a lively and informative narrative, Jay traces a century of Victorian drug experimentation and analyses the very recent prohibitions on substances our predecessors took (generally in large quantities) for granted.

Counter Productions

Emperor of Dreams tells the story of how today’s illicit substances were originally discovered and what impact they had on 19th-century British culture. Jay, a lecturer on the medical history of drugs, fuels the flames of the legislation debate as he seeks to explain why certain drugs were made illegal in the first place, and what the true consequences of that vilification have been.

Fergus Crow in The Latest Magazine

Mike Jay answers the crucial question why these drugs were ever made illegal – xenophobia, discredited racial science and the debacle of prohibition.

Bizarre Magazine

An intelligent study of a taboo subject which asks probing questions about the political bias which forced drugs into an underground culture.

Arts world

I commend to hon.Members 'Emperors of Dreams', which is an excellent book on drug use in the past century.

Paul Flynn MP in The House of Commons as reported in Hansard for 2 February 2001.

Mike Jay's absorbing book focuses on drug use during a period when the boundaries of science were being swept back and the exploits of explorers like David Livingstone regularly made news. One of its key strength is the way Jay never loses sight of this intrepid spirit; Emperors of Dreams builds up 'a picture of the subjective world opened up by each drug' without ever making the subject dull. He also provides solid answers to some interesting questions. How did drugs,'now all-pervasive multi-billion-dollar black-market phenomenon', first arrive in the modern world? Why are they so firmly associated with the 1960s counter-culture when, in 1900,'any respectable person could walk into a chemist in Britain, Europe or America and choose from a range of cannabis tinctures or hashish pastes, either pure or premixed with cocaine or opium extracts'?
Beginning with Sir Humphry Davy's decision to inhale nitrous oxide so he could study its effects on his mind, each of Jay's chapters deals with a different drug, telling its story from the point at which it was first received into British culture to its ultimate prohibition. His conclusions are balanced, working hard to show how political forces changed alongside ideas about public health and the growing global economy. Anyone seeking to pass an opinion on drugs should own a copy.

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski in The Independent on Sunday

This is a cool, intelligent book on a feverish subject: drugs in the 19th century. Jay notes that the 'dark, visionary and romantic' image of opium is due to Thomas de Quincey, though it is 'broadly the same' as heroin. We also discover that the notion of hashish stemming from a tribe known as Assassins or Hashishin is baloney: it's 'a derogatory epithet meaning outcast peasants.' The Victorians displayed admirable fortitude. Despite causing blistering lips and a hangover lasting for days, ether was 'one of the most widely used recreational drugs of the era'.

Chris Hirst in The Independent

RRP: £10.99

No. of pages: 254

Publication date: 20.10.2011

ISBN numbers:
978 1 907650 18 5
978 1 909232 12 9

Dedalus World
Rights sold: Russia
(Adaptec Company/T-ough Press)