This book caused a real stir when it was first published in England in the 1820s. De Quincey first published it anonymously and the Opium-Eater became a surprising figure in popular culture of the time. This is considered the first non-fiction book to really talk about drug addiction; the word “addiction” didn’t even exist at the time and the word “habit” was used to refer to people who developed addictions. De Quincey talks about both the positives and negatives of using the drug; talking about the positives was its own kind of scandal and debate raged about glorification of drug use, much as it still does today. De Quincey also spends a lot of time talking about his past and the ways in which that past and figures from it recur in his opium affected dreams & hallucinations. It’s not in this book, but De Quincey actually coined the term “subconscious” to describe the fact that memories and experiences live in our minds even when we have forgotten them. He talks about that a lot here, of seeing scenes from his past in greater detail than he thought he remembered and people he had forgotten while under the influence of opium. De Quincey is a really gifted writer and the way he talks about drug use feels very contemporary. His language is sometimes flowery, but this book isn’t even a hundred pages long, so he doesn’t have time to get overly poetic or pretentious. I really enjoyed this short book and the issues it brought up. More than that, it is at times an emotionally raw book when De Quincey talks about the episodes from his life that haunt his dream, like deaths in his family or periods of physical abuse by family members. It’s an interesting curio on the one hand, but it also just really works beyond that. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – first book to deal with real drug addiction is smartly written, fast-paced, brief and often emotionally raw; more than just an interesting historical document. 3 ½ stars.