The Man Who Invented the Drug Memoir

The New Yorker

Long before he tried opium, Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist, was addicted to books. The cycles of “remorse and deadly anxiety” that he suffered in his adult life began when he was seven, after a kindly bookseller lent him three guineas. This, according to Frances Wilson’s new biography, “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was De Quincey’s “earliest trespass”: a “mysterious (and indeed guilty) current of debt” that he feared would carry him away. Among the books De Quincey acquired, there was a history of Britain, expected to grow in time to “sixty or eighty parts.” But he craved something vaster and more dangerous, so he purchased “a general history of navigation, supported by a vast body of voyages”: a work that was, like its subject, “indefinite as to its ultimate extent” and, as he was told by a jesting clerk, might involve as many as fifteen thousand volumes. It would “never end,” De Quincey reasoned, since by the time “all the one-legged commodores and yellow admirals” of one generation had finished, “another generation would have grown another crop of the same gallant spinners.” You can hear the elation mixed in with the dread: according to a logical short circuit that was characteristic of his thought, an infinite subject meant infinite books. Debt was only the punctuation between ecstasies. De Quincey was happiest when he was chipping away at the sublime, volume by volume or vision by vision, and his happiness was always dangerously leveraged.

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