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The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business
David T. Courtwright
Belknap Press / Softcover / 2021-01-01 / 0674248228
price: $25.95 (may be subject to change)
336 pages
Not in Stock, usually ships in 7-10 business days

“A mind-blowing tour de force that unwraps the myriad objects of addiction that surround us… Intelligent, incisive, and sometimes grimly entertaining.”—Rod Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History

“A fascinating history of corporate America’s efforts to shape our habits and desires.”—Vox

We live in an age of addiction, from compulsive gaming and shopping to binge eating and opioid abuse. Sugar can be as habit-forming as cocaine, researchers tell us, and social media apps are hooking our kids. But what can we do to resist temptations that insidiously and deliberately rewire our brains? Nothing, David Courtwright says, unless we understand the history and character of the global enterprises that create and cater to our bad habits.

The Age of Addiction chronicles the triumph of what Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” the growing network of competitive businesses targeting the brain pathways responsible for feeling, motivation, and long-term memory. We see its success in Purdue Pharma’s pain pills, in McDonald’s engineered burgers, and in Tencent video games from China. All capitalize on the ancient quest to discover, cultivate, and refine new and habituating pleasures. The business of satisfying desire assumed a more sinister aspect with the rise of long-distance trade, plantation slavery, anonymous cities, large corporations, and sophisticated marketing. Multinational industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organizations, have multiplied and cheapened seductive forms of brain reward, from junk food to pornography. The internet has brought new addictions: in 2018, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases.


“[A] compulsively readable book about bad habits becoming big business… In crisp and playful prose and with plenty of needed humor, Courtwright has written a fascinating history of what we like and why we like it, from the first taste of beer in the ancient Middle East to opioids in West Virginia.”—Micah Meadowcroft, The American Conservative

“One admires the eclectic sweep of Courtwright’s catalogue of addictions, his sheer wealth of knowledge… As with all addictions, the book offers many pleasures and rewards.”—Lennard Davis, Times Higher Education

“A fascinating history of corporate America’s efforts to shape our habits and desires.”—Sean Illing, Vox

“A sweeping, ambitious account of the evolution of addiction… This bold, thought-provoking synthesis will appeal to fans of ‘big history’ in the tradition of Guns, Germs, and Steel.”—Publishers Weekly

“An important addition to Courtwright’s groundbreaking work on the history of substance use disorders, this study of the accelerating ‘weaponization’ of pleasure—and the biological, social, and economic incentives that fuel excess—is compulsory reading for anyone wondering how addiction became the foremost public health problem worldwide. Deeply researched, intensely readable, and a sobering reminder of our vulnerability to bondage marketed as liberation.”—Deborah Rudacille, author of The Riddle of Gender

“The delight I took in reading this book can perhaps best be expressed by saying that I read it end-to-end in two sittings and might have done it in one if life hadn’t intruded. Courtwright’s erudition is astonishing, and his wit makes the book fun to read as well as informative.”—Keith Humphreys, author of Circles of Recovery

“Is limbic capitalism the tail that wags the dog? Is it a vital cog in a larger and more complex machine? Courtwright offers a powerful and compelling history of the changing forms of pleasure and addiction over the long span of human history. A bold and fascinating book, sure to generate much discussion.”—Daniel Lord Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain

“A mind-blowing tour de force that unwraps the myriad objects of addiction that surround us daily. From alcohol to internet gaming, food to gambling, drugs to sex, Courtwright covers the globe over thousands of years. This intelligent, incisive, and sometimes grimly entertaining book will become the standard work on the subject.”—Rod Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History

“This rich and rewarding book explores the long history of the global pleasure revolution. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, commercialized food, gambling, and even the internet lean toward addiction, rooted in pleasure centers in the brain. Courtwright shows how today’s capitalism supplies those desires at an often frightful price.”—William Rorabaugh, author of Prohibition: A Concise History

“Compelling and ingenious, this book deals the reader into a reality game where the crafty biology of pleasure meets what David Courtwright calls limbic capitalism. No one’s leveling up in the high-stakes game that is The Age of Addiction. The question is how you play, whether or not you can stop, and what happens when you do.”—Nancy D. Campbell, author of Discovering Addiction

Table of Contents:

1. Newfound Pleasures
2. Mass Pleasures
3. Liberating–Enslaving Pleasures
4. Anti-vice Activism
5. Pro-vice Activism
6. Food Addictions
7. Digital Addictions
8. Against Excess

About the Author:

David T. Courtwright is Presidential Professor Emeritus at the University of North Florida and the author of Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America and Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. He was an inaugural recipient of a grant from the highly competitive NEH Public Scholar Program and is a regular media commentator on the history of addiction.

Courtwright holds out hope that limbic capitalism can be contained by organized opposition from across the political spectrum. Progressives, nationalists, and traditionalists have made common cause against the purveyors of addiction before. They could do it again.

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