The best books on the riddle of psychedelics

Who am I?

I've been fascinated by psychedelics since I was a teenager, and along with my book I’ve written a number of academic papers and book chapters on the subject. It intrigues me how subtle changes in the brain’s chemistry leads to such profound changes in perception, cognition, and feeling, including religious feeling. I want to know what those experiences mean, and what they can tell us about the world. For if all they are is some derangement of the senses, why is it that so many writers, thinkers, philosophers and artists return to the experience, again and again? There is a riddle here, a mystery, and I love that I’m able to devote my research time to trying to answer it.


I wrote...

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

By Andy Letcher,

Book cover of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

What is my book about?

Psychedelics are rarely out of the news and never far away. In this book, I wanted to tell the phantasmagoric story of how the strange and perplexing effects of psilocybin-containing mushrooms came to be so influential on contemporary culture. A lot of mythology and folklore had built up around the purported history of psychedelics, so I went back to the original sources to see what evidence there was for psychedelic use in the past. You’ll be as surprised as I was by what I found.

Were the druidic builders of Stonehenge inspired by eating magic mushrooms? Is Santa Claus really a Fly Agaric-eating shaman? Which Oxford Professor of Poetry advocated the religious use of mushrooms? I answer all these and more.

The books I picked & why

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The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Book cover of The Doors of Perception

Why this book?

I have to start with a classic, one of the most influential trip reports ever written, one that helped kickstart the psychedelic 60s. Huxley had a profound interest in mystical experience, and a longing to know first-hand what the great mystics had beheld and felt. In his mescaline experiences, Huxley believed he’d come close. Borrowing heavily from Indian philosophy to explain his raptures, he set the stage for the explosion of interest in Eastern spirituality that marked the 60s. No wonder the Beatles included him on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. I love his measured tone and his theory that psychedelics turn off the ‘reducing valve of consciousness’ to reveal ‘mind-at-large’, an idea now getting support from cutting-edge neuroscience.

The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Doors of Perception as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover this profound account of Huxley's famous experimentation with mescalin that has influenced writers and artists for decades.

'Concise, evocative, wise and, above all, humane, The Doors of Perception is a masterpiece' Sunday Times

In 1953, in the presence of an investigator, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, sat down and waited to see what would happen. When he opened his eyes everything, from the flowers in a vase to the creases in his trousers, was transformed. Huxley described his experience with breathtaking immediacy in The Doors of Perception.

In its sequel Heaven and Hell, he goes…


True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise

By Terence McKenna,

Book cover of True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise

Why this book?

McKenna was a blarney-kissed polymath, bard, and raconteur who dazzled audiences with his inspired psychedelic rants during the 80s and 90s. I was lucky enough to meet him once, and he blew me away with his theories about the fractal nature of time. This, his best book, tells the fantastic tale of an expedition with his brother to the Amazon in the 1970s, in search of a fabled indigenous psychedelic compound. They never found it but discovered instead a bounteous supply of magic mushrooms, a find that tipped them right down the rabbit hole, giving birth to some of McKenna’s outlandish theories along the way. A great adventure story, told with wit, erudition, and verve, and an insight into a brilliant, offbeat mind.

True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise

By Terence McKenna,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked True Hallucinations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Describes the search for a mushroom that could reveal the secrets of consciousness.


Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine: Creativity, Ecstasy, and Healing

By Maria Papaspyrou (editor), Chiara Baldini (editor), David Luke (editor)

Book cover of Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine: Creativity, Ecstasy, and Healing

Why this book?

Psychedelic literature is unquestionably dominated by the white, male author. If, like me, you yearn to hear other voices and other perspectives, then this collection of essays couldn’t be more timely. The twenty-three chapters, from academic and non-academic authors, cover a range of perspectives, and while you may not agree with all of them, they’re refreshing nonetheless. It’s hard to single out any particular essay, but it’s always a pleasure to read Kathleen Harrison. Harrison, who was once married to Terence McKenna, spent years living with the Mazatec people, and treats us to her animistic vision of the world as something that’s alive and communicative. But the whole book contains riches and paves the way to a more diverse psychedelic literature.

Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine: Creativity, Ecstasy, and Healing

By Maria Papaspyrou (editor), Chiara Baldini (editor), David Luke (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exploration of the connections between feminine consciousness and altered states from ancient times to present day

Women have been shamans since time immemorial, not only because women have innate intuitive gifts, but also because the female body is wired to more easily experience altered states, such as during the process of birth. Whether female or male, the altered states produced by psychedelics and ecstatic trance expand our minds to tap into and enhance our feminine states of consciousness as well as reconnect us to the web of life.

In this book, we discover the transformative powers of feminine consciousness…


Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

By Stephan V. Beyer,

Book cover of Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

Why this book?

I suspect that many of us now know someone who’s been to the Amazon to take the psychedelic beverage, ayahuasca, returning with wide eyes and tales of profound healing. Here, anthropologist Stephan Beyer cuts through the romanticisation to present an accurate and engaging picture of ayahuasca shamanism in the Upper Amazon. He asks difficult questions, such as how well shamans actually cure sickness and why so many shamans engage in sorcery, but his inquiry is never less than sympathetic. That he peppers the book with his own psychedelic, ayahuasca visions, makes this one of the most accessible and engaging books on the subject.

Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

By Stephan V. Beyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Singing to the Plants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Upper Amazon, mestizos are the Spanish-speaking descendants of Hispanic colonizers and the indigenous peoples of the jungle. Some mestizos have migrated to Amazon towns and cities, such as Iquitos and Pucallpa; most remain in small villages. They have retained features of a folk Catholicism and traditional Hispanic medicine, and have incorporated much of the religious tradition of the Amazon, especially its healing, sorcery, shamanism, and the use of potent plant hallucinogens, including ayahuasca. The result is a uniquely eclectic shamanist culture that continues to fascinate outsiders with its brilliant visionary art. Ayahuasca shamanism is now part of global…


Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony

By Julian Vayne, Pete Loveday,

Book cover of Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony

Why this book?

If all my choices so far have been, in some way, about the psychedelic experience, this is a practical hands-on guide about how to occasion one yourself. Psychedelics can be consumed safely, but there are attendant risks, not least from their continued illegality in many parts of the world. Vayne, who has decades of experience as a psychedelic user and ritual technician, talks the reader through recommended ways to prepare for a psychedelic experience, how to navigate what subsequently unfolds, and how to integrate it afterwards. This is the indispensable guide for the psy-curious, and even better it comes with a cover designed by legendary British psychedelic comic artist, Pete Loveday. 

Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony

By Julian Vayne, Pete Loveday,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Getting Higher as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Getting Higher is a manual for exploring the use of psychedelic substances in the contexts of spirituality, self-transformation and magic. This is the psychonaut s essential guide. The techniques presented here work whether you're a scientist or a shaman; there's no requirement to believe in anything other than the wonder of your own neurochemistry and the value of the psychedelic experience. Getting Higher describes the psychedelic triangle of Set, Setting and Substance. It suggests strategies to hold and enhance the psychedelic experience; from games to play when you are high, through to complete entheogenic ceremonies. It will help you to…


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