3.5 out of 5: Genius and Heroin is aptly subtitled "The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages." Largo's introduction begins: "From the dawn of civilization there has always been a fine line between creativity and self-destruction." Largo explores this "fine line" in Genius and Heroin through an alphabetical compilation of hundreds of brief biographies of the various excesses of actors, writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and other notorious people.
Despite this book's prosaic format (most such compilations are lifeless and trite, destined to be gift books that are never read), I was thoroughly entertained and often surprised by Largo's collection. A few examples:
- Sigmund Freud "helped make cocaine a popular recreational drug." He wrote papers in praise of the drug and prescribed it to a friend who ended up with a $10,000/month cocaine addiction as a result.
- Janis Joplin was voted "The Ugliest Man on Campus" at her college.
- Vincent Van Gough was inspired to paint "Starry Night" by the view out of the window of his locked cell in a mental hospital.
- Morphine addition was considered such a serious social epidemic in 1900 that a public interest group called the Saint James Society offered free heroin in the mail to anyone wishing to break a morphine habit. By 1925, there were 200,000 heroin addicts in the U.S.
Armed with interesting factoids like these, you'll never be without good material for cocktail party conversations. Genius and Heroin--an attractive book filled with illustrations and photographs--makes for a guilty, and somewhat sordid, pleasure.