Book Review: Drunks – An American History (Christopher M. Finan)

Book Review: Drunks – An American History (Christopher M. Finan)

A Book Review Three Years in the Making

Thats not necessarily a good thing – and in this case; its really not. I first started reading this three years ago in the end of 2019 (end of November I started according to GoodReads) and it took me until just the other day (January 18th, 2023) to finish it.

Thats not really a good sign. Technically speaking – I first saw this at the Hershey Public Library in 2017 and added it to my “To Read” list on GoodReads and read a few pages there at the library before putting it back and didn’t get it until I stumbled upon it at a Library Book Sale in 2019. And thats when I began reading it in fits and bits from then til I finished.

So not exactly a glowing review right off the bat on that. Sadly, we’ll get into all that in the book review proper.

My first book finished for the year, and my first book review of the year was:

So it only seems fitting this would be my second for the year!

Drunks – An American History

The quick skinny on this big, informative, historical, scholarly, thick, long book:

A social history of alcoholism in the United States, from the seventeenth century to the present day
Today, millions of Americans are struggling with alcoholism, but millions are also in long-term recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous and a growing number of recovery organizations are providing support for alcoholics who will face the danger of relapse for the rest of their lives. We have finally come to understand alcoholism as a treatable illness, rather than a moral failure. Today’s advocates can draw inspiration from the victories of sober drunks throughout American history.


Christopher Finan recounts the nation’s history with alcohol and its search for sobriety, which began among Native Americans in the colonial period, when liquor was used to cheat them of their property. He introduces us to the first of a colorful cast of characters, a remarkable Iroquois leader named Handsome Lake, who dedicated his life to helping his people renounce hard liquor. And we meet Carrie Nation, the wife of an alcoholic who destroyed bars with an ax in her anger over what alcohol had done to her family, as well as the idealistic and energetic Washingtonians, reformed drunks who led the first national movement to save men like themselves.


Finan also tells the dramatic story of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the two drunks who helped each other stay sober and then created AA, which survived its tumultuous early years and has made it possible for millions of men and women to quit drinking. This is narrative history at its best: entertaining and authoritative, an important portrait of one of America’s great liberation movements.

Drunks – An American History (GoodReads Blurb)

Well, I suppose that back of the book blurb covers it… somewhat. I’ll be bluntly honest about the book, its dull, its tedious, and its boring. Thats the quick snippet right there. Its 344 pages (hadcover) but really ends at about 291 (the rest is index, bibliography, footnotes, etc.). The final few pages details the author’s own history with alcoholism. And I think that kind of sums this book up.

I don’t want to downplay what the author went through with his battles or anything, but a lot of this book feels like an attempt at justification. Statistics are interesting in their usage in this book where they see on the high end and while listed in the footnotes in the back, they are also a bit speculative in places, and calling a person who drinks two to four drinks a week an alcoholic feels a bit hyperbolic. I feel like this was a work of love for the author – Christopher M. Finan – he became sober, and wanted to see how and why America has its love and predilection for alcohol. Almost a way of looking for justification – in a scholarly attempt at doing so. His final pages highlight this to me how he discusses his grandfather, his father, himself as alcoholics. In some ways I feel like these last few pages then cloud and discolor the way the book reads in a post – hoc kind of way. Where before the ending I have one impression; that this is a scholarly attempt at writing about alcoholism, addiction, and America’s attempts at treatment; after the final pages I see it as somewhat of an attempt at justification, explaining his own alcoholism (especially with mentioning the history of his grandfather and father as drunks) and using this as a way to also state he has special scholarly authority on the subject because he’s a ‘sober drunk’.

Sadly though, the book is just too boring to have much weight to it – besides its actual heavy physical weight. I think some might have picked this up expecting to hear great or funny stories of drunks over time, but its more a telling of moments, blips, throughout American history, of select people who got super drunk, what happened to them, and how they and America responded to this. Calling this “An American History” feels a bit dubious. Sure its a history of drunks in America, but the way this is told isn’t defining it as something that defined America. He doesn’t treat this like Alcohol and Alcoholism defined America and made America. Despite this ‘critical review’:


“Drunks is a fascinating history of the recovery movement that allowed me to consider my own sobriety in a broader context. Chris Finan recounts in entertaining and compelling style the experiences of those who fought to have alcoholism recognized as an illness and broke barriers in trying to treat it. I was transported throughout this journey and would like to think I might have joined the ‘Marthas,’ a group of mid-nineteenth-century women who were on the front lines of the battle against the deadly ravages of alcoholism. Finan has written an outstanding book that should take its place alongside the definitive texts detailing other medical and cultural issues in American society.”

Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar

I could snippet out some other quotes from the Amazon page on it, one I did like, and got from Google and then when going to the directed Amazon page I couldn’t find it, but it discussed how the book showed and described how “America was founded on drinking, that Americans that drink created America and that some just drank too much”, or some such talk. The review snippet I saw was interesting, shame in the Google to Amazon process it was lost (and when going back to Google it used a different snippet the next time).

(Edit: Found the snippet in question:

An interesting read for fans of American history.” “Drunks is a lively, engaging, and enlightening account of a major strain (in several senses of the word) of the American character. We drank our way to nationhood, and some of us drank too much. Cheers!”

Amazon Book Reviews – Drunks – An American History by Christopher M. Finan

Edited 11:31AM 1.21.23)

I will say the personal reviews on GoodReads are far more interesting than the ones on Amazon. Most on Amazon that are four or five star are “Vine reviews of a free product” which I always find interesting and somewhat clouded and dubious when grading those versus non – free / given / endorsed reviews .

I will say this one caught my attention as humorous given that it took me a bit over three years to read the book:

[Five Stars] You’ll read it in a week and understand more about a world that 7% of Americans live in daily.
This is Finan’s best book to date. The language is clear and lucid. It makes the topic engaging. A professional historian, he has avoided or minimized the expert’s need for deep documentation, substantiation and annotation. This delivers to the general non-historian a very readable, thoroughly researched, work on a largely neglected topic.

Amazon Book Reviews – Drunks – An American History by Christopher M. Finan

Early Chapters

The early chapters are filled with a bit of… well, maybe the best way to put it is describing it as “writing for its time”. He uses a lot of quotes of pilgrims, colonial leaders, etc, and their talk of the Native Americans crosses over into Finan’s own writing. A lot comes off as not exactly culturally sensitive. There is some footnoting issues here as well, when sometimes theres an anecdotal story that comes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries… I would like a footnote. Given that its been 200 to 400 years ago, I would like to be able to verify stories a bit better than just a quote and the quote leads to just a comment of “it was said by Handsome Luke” rather than a book or text where I could find the quote or story or how it came to be passed down over the centuries.

Later Chapters

I noticed a few more mental, math, or editing errors later in the book. Things like where a statistic of a study was given, that 100 men attempted X to become sober, and at the end of it only 5 remained sober – Finan then goes on to say that it was a success rate of 20%. I had to take my shoes off to verify, but it didn’t seem to add up to me.

There is also issues of ‘who’s who’ a lot in this book, not just in later chapters – though it seems more prevalent then – instances where he is discussing one person, then switches over to another, and then back to another, all within a very large paragraph. And in that same paragraph he then will revert to mentioning another person from a paragraph two or three previous; and he might use ‘he’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, and two last names that entire time. So it can get a little confusing in that sense, especially when quotes are thrown in, and the paragraphs start bordering entire hardcover pages.

Overall – Conclusion

Overall, I did learn some things. The book is knowledgeable, and there is a lot of information covered within. The amount of information given sometimes though feels like its thrown at you or shoved at you so fast its a bit to take in, and the timeline ebbs and flows of the writing sometimes does a bit of back and forth that makes you need to piece things together. But the book does flow well; albeit like molasses. I think where the book misses the mark the most is that it will never be a definitive source of information but attempts to be. It misses the big – let alone the bigger – picture. It paints itself as “An American History” but doesn’t do a good job of context and keeps itself so narrowly confined. It also raises a lot of questions about the need for “sober drunks” to be so integral to sobriety for others, that it feels biased and feels like its pushing out non – alcoholics. Which I think might tie in with those final pages showing that Finan is a “sober drunk” himself.

But ultimately; really the biggest problem with the book is the tedium and the boring nature of its writing. With such a huge hurdle to overcome – Finan’s writing style – you’ll need a few drinks with you to drink while reading this.

My GoodReads rating: **
My LibraryThing Rating: *.5
GoodReads Overall Average Rating: 3.40 (as of 1.20.23)

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Thanks For Reading

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Thanks for reading everyone, and cheers!

Cheers!

-B. Kline

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Last Updated: January 8, 2024By
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