Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Top 10 Psychedelic Non-fiction

I wrote a top 10 list of non-fiction psychedelic books for the Guardian last week. I have to say that I've not been pleased by the reaction. Everyone has been remarkably nice and appreciative. Surely that's not the point of top 10 lists, is it? They are supposed to get people shouting loudly about how wrong you are, and what were you thinking to miss out X, Y or Z? So, in an effort to get a better reaction, I present it here, in the hope that someone will call me a wrongbrain. My list:

--

1. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
Huxley's account of his experiments with mescaline in the 1950s make psychedelic use sound like a perfectly reasonable and admirable pursuit, which would bring credit to any middle class gentleman. Huxley never wrote a dull sentence in his life and this is certainly one of his best works. If its influence of the likes of Timothy Leary or Jim Morrison is considered, then it could easily be his most culturally important book.

2. The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is usually considered Thompson's best work, but I much prefer The Great Shark Hunt. It's a huge book, a collection of the best of his journalism from the 60s and 70s, and it shows that Thompson had a far greater range than his later reputation suggests. His essay about Hemingway's death, in which he tried to understand why such a once-vibrant man ended up blowing his brains out in small town America, is particularly poignant following Thompson's suicide.

3. The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
This is Wolfe's account of life with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the birth of the American west coast psychedelic movement. Wolfe knew that a detached, even-handed journalistic approach could never really explain what was happening, so he gave his book the same psychedelic viewpoint as his characters. The result is a wonderful piece of writing. For those of us who weren't born in the 60s, this is probably the closest we can get to experiencing it.

4. High Priest by Timothy Leary
Leary was a prolific writer, producing over 30 books and hundreds of essays and papers. I've chosen his autobiographical High Priest (1968) for this list as I think it is one of his most accomplished pieces of writing. It captures both the drug experience and the sense of discovery so well; the moment a scientist realises that the implications of their work are so huge that their life will never be the same again.


5. Sisters of the Extreme: Women writing on the drug experience by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (eds)
Psychedelic use is split fairly evenly between the men and women, but the desire to write about and try to explain the experience is a predominantly male trait. Certainly every other book in this top ten is from a male author, which is why this book so important. It sheds light on the otherwise hidden half of the psychedelic experience.


6. The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia by Paul Devereux
Devereux's impressive and thorough trawl through prehistory will be an eye-opener for anyone who thought drug use was a modern phenomenon. Devereux demonstrates that this point in history is a strange quirk in the human story, a rare time where we don't have a structure for incorporating psychedelic use into our society. If nothing else, it will make you view your ancestors in a different light!


7. DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, MD
The medical profession has written little about psychedelics since Timothy Leary, which makes this book all the more valuable. DMT, a natural chemical produced by the human brain, is a hallucinogen so powerful that it makes LSD look like lager shandy. DMT throws up some very big questions about the workings of the brain, consciousness and about the world at large, and Strassman does not shy from these. For those who think that one day science will have all the answers, this book shows just how clueless we still are.


8. Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati Volume 1 by Robert Anton Wilson
The usual medical warning about psychedelic use is that it is dangerous for anyone with latent or undiagnosed neurotic or schizophrenic disorders. Perhaps a more important warning would be that psychedelic use can trigger an onslaught of utterly weird synchronicities which leave the user in a world that has seemingly gone totally crazy, while they still feel perfectly sane. Robert Anton Wilson describes this situation better than anyone, and this sanity-bashing account of his personal journey through what he calls 'Chapel Perilous' is one of his best works. Anti-drug campaigners should distribute this book in schools, and ask children if they could handle that much madness.

9. Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution by Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin
Psychedelics are often thought to have faded in influence after the mid 70s, but this is not the case. Instead, they became more subtly integrated into people's lives, to the degree that they didn't overshadow an individual's other interests or achievements. Bill Hicks is a good example. Although he frequently talked about his psychedelic use on stage he is not generally labelled as just a 'drugs comic', and I suspect that my inclusion of this book in this list will surprise a few people. This honest biography by his close friend Kevin Booth shows how integral psychedelics were to his life and, ultimately, his legacy.

10. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff
This is significant because it is one of the first books to look at the legacy that the psychedelic movement of the 60s left behind. Many people will be surprised by the debt the idea of a 'personal computer' owes to psychedelics, the significance of the geographical location of Silicon Valley on the San Franciscan peninsula, or why Steve Jobs would say that taking LSD was one of the "two or three most important things" he has ever done. An impressive account of recent history.


11. The Road of Excess by Brian Barritt
A psychedelic top 10, of course, goes up to 11, which allows me to include Barritt's autobiography. One of Timothy Leary's lovers recently told me that she thought this book had the greatest descriptions of acid trips ever written, and she may well be right. This is a piece of literature that has clearly never been within a hundred yards of a copy editor, and it is all the better for it. Words just spill forth with no interest in grammar, coherence or where the narrative is going, but it possesses such an innate wit and swagger that it is a complete joy from start to finish. Psychedelia in its purest form, studded with flashes of brilliance.

4 Comments:

Blogger jh said...

Ah - just discovered that posting commnents was still set to the default 'registered users only'. So I went to change it to allow anyone to post, and in doing so somehow deleted 3 comments that were pending moderation... If that was you, many apologies, it was nothing personal!

2:50 AM

 
Blogger Acrillic said...

Excellent selection,
Thanks JH.
Peace

12:18 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most balanced, down-to-earth description of the psychedelic experience (written not by or about a celebrity, but more literate than any others I've seen) is "I Think, Therefore Who Am I?" subtitled, "Memoir of a Psychedelic Year." It should ne on any top ten list of psychedelic nonfiction.

10:51 AM

 
Anonymous Dale M Houstman said...

Great list, although - since you seem to desire some "foaming at the mouth" and great umbrage over small matters - what a load of terminal tripe!

But (semi-seriously), as far as psychedelic literature goes, one of my early favorites would be Brian Aldiss' "Barefoot in the Head" whose use of hallucinatory and fractured language did - to some degree - recreate the sense of a LSD experience for me - and I should know!

2:42 AM

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home