The Five Best Psychedelics Books
SEPTEMBER 15, 2022.
There’s an old aphorism, sometimes attributed to the freak-rocker Frank Zappa, and widely distributed on inspirational bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets across the English-speaking world: “A mind is like parachute. It doesn’t work if it isn’t open.” Psychedelics are all about opening minds—whether in the literal sense of facilitating new modes of intellectual experience, or in the broader way of trying to nudge attitudes about drugs, and their uses and implications. But there’s another way to expand your mind: books. And like a mind (or, sure, a parachute) they also only work when they’re open. Psychedelic culture has produced a wealth of great literature. (And, granted, plenty of not-so-great literature, too.) These are five of the best books about psychedelic drugs, which can help you on your own mind-expanding journey, or just get you up to speed on the history of these exciting compounds.
How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan (2018)
The current psychedelic renaissance owes much to Pollan, and his New York Times bestseller. Plenty of ink had been spilled about psychedelic drugs and their effects. But so much of it was extremely insider-y. Books written by psychonauts for psychonauts risked alienating a wider readership. Pollan changed all that. An established food and agriculture journalist, who began his own psychedelic journey at middle-age, as a relatively naive user of psychedelics, Pollan entered the wild world of mind-expansion as a curious outsider. Mixing history, neuroscience and his first-hand reports of various psychedelic experiences, Pollan proved that tripping wasn’t just the domain of long-haired hippies. Recently adapted as a Netflix documentary series, How To Change Your Mind remains a key text in modern psychedelic literature, which has helped many skeptics, well, change their minds.
LSD: My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann (1978)
This Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann has the distinction of being the first person to synthesize LSD. In 1938, while researching drugs to help in the birth process, Hofmann synthesized the drug, quite by accident. Five years later, he synthesized the drug purposefully, and ingested about 250 micrograms. Hoffmann’s wonderful book describes his life as a working chemist, and his early LSD trips. Among much else, these trip reports are notable for describing the LSD trip as a kind of aesthetic experience: “I felt myself one with all romanticists and dreamers,” Hofmann writes. The book also tracks the drug’s escape from the lab, and its non-medical uses as a recreational drug (what Hoffmann calls an “inebriant”). While Hofmann is critical of the widespread use of LSD in the 1960s and beyond (hence the “Problem Child” bit in the title), his writing avoids the usual panic. He is clear-eyed and perceptive about why LSD and other psychedelics were adopted by the counterculture. As he writes, “[I]t had deep-deep-seated sociological causes: materialism, alienation from nature through industrialization and increasing urbanization, lack of satisfaction in professional employment in a mechanized, lifeless working world, ennui and purposelessness in a wealthy, saturated society, and a lack of religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation of life.” It’s very likely that many of these causes, which still persist, account for the continued popularity of psychedelic exploration.
PiHKAL and TiHKAL by Alexander and Ann Shulgin (1991 and 1997, respectively)
A double whammy with this entry. It’s unlikely that any two books about psychedelic chemistry have proved more influential than these two volumes, co-authored by “Godfather of Ecstasy” Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin and partner Ann. The two titles—acronyms for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved,” and “Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved”—are dense chemical manuals, which offer detailed descriptions for synthesizing scores of novel psychedelics. But more than psychedelic cookbooks, PiHKAL and TiHKAL (which were originally published anonymously) also detail the Shulgins deep, lifelong affair, as partners in both chemistry and love. With their wild descriptions of a range of psychedelic experiences (and just-as wild accounts of the Shulgins own psychedelically-aroused sex lives) these books are essential for anyone seriously interested in the chemistry of psychedelics, or in the lives and personalities of two of psychedelia’s most interesting individuals.
Sacred Knowledge by William A. Richards (2015)
When it comes to the clinical history of psychedelics, there are few people alive who know more about it than Bill Richards. He was one of the last people to legally conduct clinical trials in the 1970s, and he’s still involved with the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. While his writing evinces a clinician’s concern for safety and best practices in psychedelic research, it is also—as its title implies—expressed reverence towards the types of experiences these drugs can produce. Drawing on existentialist philosophy and various religious traditions, Sacred Knowledge offers a detailed, thoughtful account of precisely how psychedelics can produce what clinicians “mystical-type experiences,” and (perhaps more importantly) how those experiences can be fruitfully integrated into the patients’ day-to-day lives.
Mycelium Wassonii by Brian Blomberth (2021)
On the lighter side of the psychedelic literature library is this gorgeously drawn graphic novel, which tells the story of R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna Wasson. Like the Shulgins books, it’s equal parts psychedelic history and love story, charting the Wasson’s courtship, shared interest in mycology, and eventual trek to Mexico, where they become two of the first known white westerners to take part in a magic mushroom ritual. Illustrated in a fun cartoon style that vaguely recalls Looney Tunes animation (but, you know, trippier), Blomberth’s book makes romantic heroes of two life-long mycology nerds. But more than some rosy, fun chronicle of the Wassons psychedelic adventures, the book also digs into the shadier corners of their work—like how their mushroom excursions were covertly underwritten by the C.I.A., who were hoping to learn more about far-out properties of these esoteric fungi.