The best books about madness, drugs, and rock’n’roll

The Books I Picked & Why

Hangover Square

By Patrick Hamilton

Book cover of Hangover Square

Why this book?

George Bone is a sensitive drunk with a touch of psychosis and a modest private income. Leading a rackety life in pre-war Earls Court, he’s in love with a sponger, a failed actress who wants to exploit him for his connections, and he bears her humiliations without complaint. But sometimes, something clicks in his brain and he imagines killing her and her seedy sidekick and going home to Maidenhead and peace. Boarding houses and bottle parties, blow-outs in the West End and Brighton: Hamilton captures a miserable, boozy, coarse and uptight world, and provides an ending to match.

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

By Tom Wolfe

Book cover of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Why this book?

This classic of New Journalism (applying the techniques of experimental fiction to reporting) is a chronicle of the long, strange trip across America taken by the so-called Merry Pranksters in the days before LSD was criminalised. Their transport – the original ‘magic bus’ – was loaded with lights, cameras, and sound equipment. Their house-band was the Grateful Dead. Their fate was a deflating come-down.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey

Book cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Why this book?

If you thought the hippies were flimsy thinkers, this 1962 novel by the leader of the Merry Pranksters – see above – will set you right. The tragic tale of a cheeky conman who takes on the regime of a psychiatric hospital and loses, it is narrated by a fellow-inmate, a Native American, and can be read as an allegory of how the System crushes the individual. But it’s much, much more than that. Kesey’s characters, and the emotions they stir, linger in the mind like a chemical cosh.

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Bad News

By Edward St Aubyn

Book cover of Bad News

Why this book?

No one captures the self-loathing and paradoxical liberty of the moneyed junkie as well as St Aubyn (except perhaps Anna Cavan). The second novel in his almost-autobiographical Patrick Melrose series, Bad News finds our fucked-up anti-hero on a gargantuan smack binge in New York at the age of 22. How the author – now clean – can reconstruct his frame of mind is remarkable; how he can do it with such precision and wit is mind-blowing.

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A Theatre for Dreamers

By Polly Samson

Book cover of A Theatre for Dreamers

Why this book?

Wouldn’t it have been cool to have been hanging on Hydra in the early Sixties, when writers and artists – and the young Leonard Cohen – made the Greek island their home? Yes and no, says Samson, in this beautifully observed account. Samson’s powers of description constantly delight and combine with painstaking research to re-create those high times so vividly that the reader can sometimes forget this is actually fiction.

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