Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Sex, Drugs and Chocolate – Paul Martin ***

Perhaps it’s the buried puritan in me, but I found the pleasures of Paul Martin’s book, subtitled The Science of Pleasure, a trifle elusive. The concept was good – looking at why we feel pleasure and our complex relationship with hedonism – why small amounts of pleasure on a regular but occasional basis are better than continuous pleasure, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. There’s also plenty on addiction and our attitude to both pleasure itself and pleasure seekers. But there is something about the approach that put me off.
The book is, without doubt, well written and covers a reasonable amount of science (though arguably the anecdote to science ratio is perhaps a bit high). In fact I can only identify two clear reasons why it didn’t entirely work for me. One was the slight jokeyness that pervades the writing – this was a mild irritant. The other was the snobbishness that comes through heavily in the section on chocolate. Time and time again Martin asserts that the only real chocolate is the fancy dark stuff with 60% cacao solids or more, referring to what most of us think of as chocolate as ‘ersatz sugary confectionaries masquerading as chocolate’ and many more insults. I think he is fundamentally wrong here. In fact the chemical-driven pleasure principle from chocolate is primarily from eating the Cadbury’s/Hershey style stuff. The pleasure available from ‘real’ chocolate is like the intellectual pleasure that is gained from drinking dry sherry or eating caviar. It’s not really pleasurable at all, but it makes you feel good because it sets you apart from the masses.
However, if you overlook this, there’s a lot to like in this book. Martin does explore subjects that are often brushed aside, yet have a huge significance for human beings. As such this is a worthwhile and sometimes thought provoking read. I just wish it could have been done without the irritation factor to dampen the pleasure.
There is (the clue’s in the title) a lot about sex and drugs, so this is unlikely to be a suitable title for the younger reader.
Review by Brian Clegg

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