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High society - A Brief History of Vice'

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Book explores the role of vice in the growth of civilization

Our lives are filled with vice.

So many of the things that we enjoy the things we drink and smoke and get sexy with could be considered 'bad' for us, whether it is biologically, psychologically or both. But would it surprise you to know that those same things often played key parts in the development of civilization?

That's the central basis for Robert Evan's 'A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization' (Plume, $16). Evans best known for his work at the comedy website Cracked takes a look at the many ways that our ancestors got their various kicks and how those vices actually served the larger purpose of advancing civilization as a whole.

It's a VERY close look.

Right from the jump, Evans is offering up insights regarding the various ways in which alcohol has altered the course of history. Basically, civilization has been operating under the influence pretty much from the beginning nature's own boozy tendencies set the ball rolling while we were still figuring out fire.

As for drugs, Evans goes deep on those as well. And it isn't just the big ones though there's a lot about how marijuana and assorted hallucinogens have contributed to big cultural shifts good (scientific and intellectual discovery) and bad (warfare) and somewhere in-between (religious practices). There's stuff in here about tobacco and a bunch about coffee a drug so ubiquitous that we don't even consider it a drug anymore.

As part of his exhaustive research, Evans goes so far as to attempt to recreate some of the various concoctions and consumption methods used in the distant past. He includes instructions and detailed accounts of his experiences, offering us an idea of the relative effectiveness of these various long-forgotten trip; said effectiveness varies from 'not very' to 'unsettlingly intense' as Evans and his volunteers (foremost among them his long-suffering fiance Magenta) aim for their old-school highs.

There's a fair amount of sexy times here too. He offers up discussion about ancient connections between religion and sex work, as well as some historical attribution for assorted fetishes and sexual kinks.

One of the deceptively great things about Evans's writing in general and this book in particular is the depth of curiosity and intelligence in his work. His attitude and sense of humor is certainly on the coarse side, but if anything, that only serves as a juxtaposition to point out the compelling and thoughtful messages that he conveys. 'A Brief History of Vice' absolutely has moments of crassness, but the ideas presented are no less illuminating because they happen to be funny.

The effortlessness with which Evans finds the overlap between entertaining and educational is remarkable to behold. Finding that balance is crucial to the success of a book like this too far one way, the result is overly dry; too far in the other, the result is lightweight and disposable. 'A Brief History of Vice' not only walks the line, but takes a long, strange trip astride it. It is smart and sarcastic and sharp, with an ideal blend of facts and feelings.

'A Brief History of Vice' is an engaging and compelling assemblage of pop culture and cultural anthropology (pop cultural anthropology?), an exploration of the growth of civilization via things that our own culture has in many ways declared taboo. This is one of the more entertaining books fiction or nonfiction or whatever that you'll read this year.

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