The best books about opium

4 authors have picked their favorite books about opium and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Opium War

By Julia Lovell,

Book cover of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

A brilliant account of the two Opium Wars showing how they have been remembered in particular ways in order to make modern political points. Lovell shows us how political operators on both sides used the question of the opium trade to further their own interests. It exposes the nasty business of imperialism but also takes down a lot of myths about the wars. The book allows us to see the conflicts both in terms of what happened at the time, and how views over those events changed over the following century and a half. She explores the international history of opium and how it became linked with racist representations of Chinese overseas and how this continues to affect relations between peoples and governments today.

Who am I?

I’ve spent more than a decade exploring the historic roots of Asia’s modern political problems – and discovering the accidents and mistakes that got us where we are today. I spent 22 years with BBC News, including a year in Vietnam and another in Myanmar. I’ve written four books on East and Southeast Asia and I’m an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at the London-based thinktank, Chatham House. I love breaking down old stereotypes and showing readers that the past is much more interesting than a series of clichés about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Perhaps through that, we can recognise that our future depends on collaboration and cooperation.

I wrote...

The Invention of China

By Bill Hayton,

Book cover of The Invention of China

What is my book about?

China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals.

In this compelling account, Hayton shows how China’s present-day geopolitical problems—the fates of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea—were born in the struggle to create a modern nation-state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers and revolutionaries adopted foreign ideas to “invent’ a new vision of China. By asserting a particular, politicized version of the past the government bolstered its claim to a vast territory stretching from the Pacific to Central Asia. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.

The Prince of Eden

By Marilyn Harris,

Book cover of The Prince of Eden

The seven-book saga featuring the Eden family by Marilyn Harris is an amazing read, but I found The Prince of Eden to be the most moving. Not only is Edward Eden the most likable (though still questionable) of the men in the family, the book sheds light on an era of British history I wasn’t very familiar with, the 1830s-50s. I became a spectator of the social unrest, opium dens, and more within these pages. The fictional characters move alongside historical people and events, leaving their own footprints in the world of possibility within this emotional read.

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the feelings stories can evoke in readers since I cried over Bridge to Terabithia in middle school. From the time I was twelve, I’ve sought snapshots in time that ooze with a strong sense of place and flawed characters to capture my heart when reading. I’ve found well-researched historic Gothic family sagas to be the most consistent in delivering that raw emotional bond between the setting/characters and reader. As a writer, I strive to recreate what I crave when reading. The historic Gothic family sagas I’ve chosen represent an array of characters you will love—or love to hate—and cry over.

I wrote...

Perilous Confessions (The Possession Chronicles)

By Carrie Dalby,

Book cover of Perilous Confessions (The Possession Chronicles)

What is my book about?

Lucy Easton, an aspiring novelist, will do anything to boost her chances at publication—including betraying her family. But when she crosses paths with the charismatic Alexander Melling, her aspiration for success pales in comparison to the attraction she feels towards him.

Alexander is a young lawyer from a powerful family, striving to free himself from his father’s shadow. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more desperate he becomes to shed the secrets of his past—a past that can destroy both himself and the woman he’s falling in love with. From gossip magazines to gleaming Mardi Gras balls, Lucy and Alex navigate the Edwardian era in the Deep South with both passion and guilt.

The Social Life of Opium in China

By Zheng Yangwen,

Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

We know a lot about how the Chinese state sought to ban, limit, and exclude opium from its borders, but this book uniquely delves into the multifaceted way that the demand for the drug emerged in the first place and then spread down the social scale to become a mass commodity. I especially loved the detailed way in which the author showed how consumers produced a variety of meanings surrounding opium and incorporated it into both elite and popular culture. Writing against so many myths, Yangwen shows us that for much of its history, opium was celebrated not demonized.

Who am I?

I grew up in Los Angeles, the mecca of global consumer culture. I became a historian to escape from what I saw as this shallow, surface culture but through my work, I have returned to the mall. My work uses history to show how consumer desires are not natural. Instead, I ask why people consume particular things in particular places, and I show how they attribute meaning to the things they buy. I am not a specialist on China but while researching and writing on tea's global political economy and consumer culture I became fascinated by how China contributed to the making of global tastes, desires, and material culture. These books illuminate the history and cultural life of tea, opium, porcelain, and other things within and beyond China.

I wrote...

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport,

Book cover of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

What is my book about?

Tea has been one of the most popular commodities in the world. Over centuries, profits from its growth and sales funded wars and fueled colonization, and its cultivation brought about massive changes—in land use, labor systems, market practices, and social hierarchies—the effects of which are with us even today. A Thirst for Empire takes a vast and in-depth historical look at how men and women—through the tea industry in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa—transformed global tastes and habits and in the process created our modern consumer society.

An expansive and original global history of imperial tea, A Thirst for Empire demonstrates the ways that this fluid and powerful enterprise helped shape the contemporary world.

The Pure and the Impure

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Book cover of The Pure and the Impure

Although best known to Anglophone readers for her novel Gigi (1944), Colette considered Ces Plaisirs (These Pleasures) later titled The Pure and the Impure, one of her best works. A titillating exploration into the erotic underground of early twentieth-century Paris, the novel’s semi-autobiographical characters pursue a range of sexual experiences and sensual pleasures. Traversing the capital city’s carnal playgrounds, from its fashionable opium dens to its commercial boudoirs, Colette troubles the complicated relationship between sex and love – presenting both as a worthy if ultimately futile human pursuit.

Who am I?

Holly Grout is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include the cultural history of modern France, women and gender studies, and the history of beauty, fashion, celebrity, and consumer culture. Her current project, Playing Cleopatra: Inventing the Female Celebrity in Third Republic France, investigates many of the same themes around sexuality, female bodies, public decency, and spectacle. She chose these works in particular because they exemplify some of the best on sex and the city, and they address many of the same issues that Colette raised so long ago – suggesting that sex and the city was a turn-of-the-century fascination in Paris long before HBO turned it into an international cultural phenomenon.

I wrote...

The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic

By Holly Grout,

Book cover of The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic

What is my book about?

The market for commercial beauty products bloomed in Third Republic France, with a proliferation of goods promising to erase female imperfections and perpetuate an aesthetic of femininity that conveyed health and respectability. While the industry’s meteoric growth helped to codify conventional standards of womanhood, The Force of Beauty shows how it also targeted women as consumers in major markets and created new avenues by which they could express their identities.

This book explores how French women navigated changing views of femininity. Seamlessly integrating gender studies with business history, aesthetics, and the history of medicine, The Force of Beauty offers a textured and complex study of the relationship between the politics of womanhood and the politics of beauty.


By Dan Simmons,

Book cover of Drood

First of all, Drood is a fantastic trip into the macabre. And, because I love to weave actual truths into my stories, either real-life experiences or real encounters, I am fascinated that Simmons based his novel on the last five years of Charles Dickens's life. Whether this is entirely speculation or otherwise, this novel draws on the character found in Dickens's last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Simmons does precisely what I hope to do with my stories; draw the reader into my world and leave them wondering what parts were based on unexpected truths. 

Who am I?

I’m fascinated by the mind-body-spirit’s impact on our human experience. Especially the aspect of mind, because deep within us resides the shadow-self described by Carl Jung. Most of us spend our lives hiding this part, but it’s there, waiting to pounce. These are the stories I tell, and with my background in Health and Wellness and in Creative Writing, I write paranormal, supernatural, and horror stories containing the simple truths about our human experience. All are designed to bring out the shadow lurking within and expose it to the light. As a counterpoint to these dark tales, I write evocative poetry, uplifting children’s stories, and some educational books with my writing partner, Derek R. King.  

I wrote...

The Many Worlds of Mr. A. Skouandy and Other Stories from Oakwood Sanatorium

By Julie Kusma,

Book cover of The Many Worlds of Mr. A. Skouandy and Other Stories from Oakwood Sanatorium

What is my book about?

Oakwood Sanatorium blurs the lines of psychosis and reality—science and spirituality when Dr. Shepard Blanchard finds himself investigating the strange events surrounding an unconscious man abandoned in the hospital’s lobby. 

This psychological thriller’s unique postmodern collage-style creates a foreboding atmosphere as the patients sharing the man’s assigned ward are evaluated. The psychological horror and suspense enhanced with the admission forms, patients’ stories, and doctor’s notes. From beginning to end, your sanity is on the edge of oblivion, and your senses are pricked and prodded with science fiction, alternate realities, and unexpected outcomes. The many twists and turns leave you unnerved and wondering what comes next. In the end, Blanchard questions his decisions, and ultimately, he finds himself secluded in his own dark reality.

Intoxicating Manchuria

By Norman Smith,

Book cover of Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium, and Culture in China's Northeast

This excellent book illuminates the culture of intoxicants in northeast China under Japanese occupation. Smith examines Chinese literature, advertisements, and popular culture to show how liquor and opium were depicted in contemporaneous mass media and impacted local urban communities. He also investigates how popular conceptions of "health" tied in with programs initiated by the Japanese authorities to control local populations, while advertisers of patent medicines, cordials, and tonics also picked up on these themes. Some of the highlights of Intoxicating Manchuria include masterfully vivid descriptions and illustrations of cartoons revealing the uneasy relationship between law enforcement, retailers, public health practitioners, and corporations.

Who am I?

I began formally researching Japanese occupied northeast China in the late nineties in graduate school at Harvard University. Manchuria always fascinated me as a confluence of cultures: even prior to the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Mongols, and indigenous peoples circulated within the region in China's periphery. In the 1930s until 1945, Japanese propaganda portrayed the area as a "utopia" under Confucian principles, but in the mid-1990s, the horrors of the occupation for colonized peoples as well as imperial Japan's biological weapons experimentation during the Asia-Pacific War came to light in Japan and elsewhere as former Japanese settlers as well as researchers began to tell their stories.

I wrote...

Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo

By Annika A. Culver,

Book cover of Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo

What is my book about?

I investigate what drew formerly leftist Japanese intellectuals to Manchukuo and led them to produce literature, art, and photography there that served as "unofficial" propaganda in a state-organized around rightwing socialist political ideals.   When I began this project, I was fascinated by the idea of how someone could so readily switch their political orientation in a different context or setting.  What I discovered is that, instead of a complete breakage with earlier political ideologies, these intellectuals in the Manchukuo context still perceived a certain continuity with what they had believed in the past.  Their work both celebrating and criticizing reflections of a fascist state is absolutely fascinating!

The Happiness Myth

By Jennifer Michael Hecht,

Book cover of The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today

We live with so many toxic myths about happiness, and many of these myths come from books about happiness! The Happiness Myth steps up to defend happiness from all the nonsense. It’s a rollicking and often-hilarious tour through the history of human happiness, full of surprises and strange-but-true ideas to ponder. 

Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht challenges our current certainties in this irreverent and well-researched exploration of what our ancestors (and we!) need to live happy lives. She’s a wonderful and witty person to spend time with, and she’ll help you become more intelligent about the true and everlasting nature of human happiness. Happy now?

Who am I?

Emotions, we’ve all been told, are less than: less than logic, or spirituality, or anything else, really. Yet no matter how smart, spiritual, or talented people are, they can be brought to their knees by an emotion they don’t understand. Emotions have been thrown into the shadow, yet in the shadow lives immense power, so I dedicated my life to finding the power in the emotional realm. It’s been a magnificent adventure because our emotions contain genius, and they’re a part of everything we think and everything we do. Emotions aren’t less than anything; emotions are everything, and I’m so glad that they’ve welcomed me into their world.

I wrote...

The Language of Emotions

By Karla McLaren,

Book cover of The Language of Emotions

What is my book about?

This is the book I needed as a child, as a young woman healing from severe trauma, and as deeply emotive person in an emotionally baffled culture. Our learned distrust and even hatred of emotions creates ignorance and suffering that is entirely unnecessary, and in this book, I dive into the gorgeous and brilliant waters of the emotions in order to retrieve what has been taken from us. 

Strangely, this is the first book ever to focus on all seventeen emotions in terms of how they work, why they arise, and how you can learn to work with, befriend, and embrace all of them. It’s an owner’s manual for human social life and interior life, and it’s a love letter to the emotions. And hell yeah, it’s badass.

Delta of Venus

By Anaïs Nin,

Book cover of Delta of Venus

As a teenager this collection of short stories blew my mind; it’s one of the first to really explore sexual pleasure from a female perspective and I loved the way it wove psychology, power, culture, and erotic play up seamlessly and provocatively. It was most likely an unconscious template for my own collections of erotic short stories, the perfect format for the pillow book (to be read out loud to one’s lover/husband/guilty pleasure). Nin, a friend of Henry Miller and a number of Paris-based groundbreaking artists and intellectuals in the 1920s, is the perfect conduit for the louche erotic experimentation of the era, and yet this book is still timeless and still delivers in terms of fantasy.  

Who am I?

My first book was Quiver, a collection of erotic short stories. I wrote it to immortalize the hedonism of Sydney in the 1990s, wanting to show a nonjudgmental, joyful side. The fact that it touched a lot of people compelled me to write two more collections Tremble and Yearn – each exploring different themes: Tremble is an erotic re-imagining of various root myths, whilst Yearn has more historical and fantastical elements. I interweave all the characters in the stories throughout the whole collections. Humor is also important to me when it comes to the ironies and emotions around sex, the other aspect is gender power play and all the sublime reversals that can encapsulate. 

I wrote...


By Tobsha Learner,

Book cover of Quiver

What is my book about?

In the flashes that blur the line between fantasy and reality, each steamy story in Quiver captures the spontaneous erotic experiences of a group of middle-class acquaintances—a dentist and his wife; an accountant and a beautician—as they audaciously unleash their deepest desires. Each story is interconnected to each other and whilst alternating between male and female perspectives, there are no holds barred in these interactions: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, exhibitionistic, and sadomasochistic relationships – all unabashedly on display in this provocative collection. 

Alcohol and Opium in the Old West

By Jeremy Agnew,

Book cover of Alcohol and Opium in the Old West

By now, readers can get a sense of where my recommendations are going with all of this. Life in the West was hard, and alcohol and drugs were turned to (often) to help reduce the pain, discomfort, and loneliness of living in the western United States. Whiskey tended to be of poor quality, drugs were not known to be addictive, and a lot of the stereotypical old west behavior stemmed from the use of liquor and drugs – often to the detriment of the users…and innocent bystanders.

Who am I?

I recall the exact moment when my interest sparked about frontier prostitution and Denver’s underbelly — a friend mentioned the ‘bad blood’ in her family — an ancestor who was a second-rate madam and who employed her own daughters. The quest started. Who were these women, and why did they make the choices they did? I’ve spent years chasing down traces of the old west’s prostitutes, fascinated by their identities and lives. The west had opportunities for women who were willing to take chances. As a fifth-generation Coloradoan, I hoped to capture the story of these enterprising and overlooked women, their lives, and the world around them.

I wrote...

Market Street Madam

By Randi Samuelson-Brown,

Book cover of Market Street Madam

What is my book about?

A rollicking tale of blurred lines, flowing booze, played-out miners, and upstairs girls.

Annie Ryan is running a second-rate brothel in 1890s Denver with an eye toward expansion. By chance, she encounters Lydia Chambers, a society woman suffering from a laudanum habit and a bad marriage, who owns a property on the infamous Market Street. Annie’s fortunes at the brothel turn on her niece Pearl, a pretty young woman swept up in Denver’s underworld of jealousy, booze, and vice – until murder stalks the good-time girls and puts everyone’s future in doubt. Market Street Madam delivers a compelling look at the intrigues of the Wild West, where women were enterprising and justice could be had…for a price.

Poppies, Politics, and Power

By James Tharin Bradford,

Book cover of Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy

Drug trafficking has become entwined with Afghanistan in the minds of many, though the true situation is often misunderstood. Bradford’s meticulous research not only clearly explains the present situation, it places it in the broader historical context that is almost always missing. The legal trade in opium has deep roots in Afghanistan, and even in the present day, there are as many senior government officials benefiting from it as there are insurgent leaders. He also explores the growing problem with addiction that plagues Afghanistan, humanizing a complex problem.

Who am I?

Phil Halton has worked in conflict zones around the world as an officer in the Canadian Army and as a security consultant and has extensive experience in Afghanistan. He is the author of two novels and a history. He holds a Master's Degree in Defence Studies from Royal Military College of Canada, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College. 

I wrote...

Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War

By Phil Halton,

Book cover of Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War

What is my book about?

The war in Afghanistan has consumed vast amounts of blood and treasure, causing the Western powers to seek an exit without achieving victory. Seemingly never-ending, the conflict has become synonymous with a number of issues ― global jihad, rampant tribalism, and the narcotics trade ― but even though they are cited as the causes of the conflict, they are in fact symptoms.

Rather than beginning after 9/11 or with the Soviet “invasion” in 1979, the current conflict in Afghanistan began with the social reforms imposed by Amanullah Amir in 1919. Western powers have failed to recognize that legitimate grievances are driving the local population to turn to insurgency in Afghanistan. The issues they are willing to fight for have deep roots, forming a hundred-year-long social conflict over questions of secularism, modernity, and centralized power. The first step toward achieving a “solution” to the Afghanistan “problem” is to have a clear-eyed view of what is really driving it.

Or, view all 17 books about opium

New book lists related to opium

All book lists related to opium

Bookshelves related to opium