The best books on psychedelics and culture

Graham St John Author Of Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT
By Graham St John

Who am I?

The subject of psychedelics and, more generally, altered states of consciousness, has enthralled me personally and professionally since my teens. The subject grows fascinating as prohibition lifts in an era regarded as a “psychedelic renaissance.” My training as a cultural anthropologist, my interest in religion and ritual, and research focus on transformational events, movements, and figures colours this focus. Past research has included longitudinal ethnography of global psychedelic trance and festival culture. My current book project, an intellectual biography – Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (MIT Press, 2023) – is shaped by my interests in this area. 

I wrote...

Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT

By Graham St John,

Book cover of Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT

What is my book about?

While most known as a crucial component of the “jungle alchemy” that is ayahuasca, DMT is a unique story unto itself. Until now, this story has remained untold. Described by Erik Davis as “the definitive cultural history of the weirdest molecule on the planet (and in your body),” Mystery School in Hyperspace documents the modern history of DMT. Since the mid-1950s, DMT has attracted the attention of experimentalists and prohibitionists, scientists and artists, alchemists, and hyperspace emissaries.

Tracing the effect of DMT's release into the cultural bloodstream, this is the first book to explore the history of this chemical enigma, the discovery of its properties, and its significance across the sciences, arts, and life in the modern world.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

By Bruce Shlain, Martin A. Lee,

Book cover of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

Why this book?

A towering work that graces the shelf of any student of psychedelic cultural history. Memorable for its coverage, scholarship, and humour, Acid Dreams documents how LSD, once prized by the CIA as a chemical WMD and espionage weapon, broke free from the military-industrial enterprise and escaped the confines of psychiatric research to shape the aesthetics of sixties counterculture, paving its way to become a furnishing of modern life. While there are other notable efforts to address this material (i.e. Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream), Acid Dreams is a wonderfully detailed social history of LSD.

As a page-turning documentation of the role of LSD and other so-called “psychomimetics” in the CIA’s covert “mind control” program MKUltra, the book offers fascinating coverage of the “secret acid tests” in which LSD was tested on unsuspecting US citizens in the 1950s and 1960s. The book weaves together the stories of a cavalcade of characters, including Frank Olsen, Captain “Trips” Hubbard, Sandoz and Albert Hofmann, Aldous Huxley, Alan, Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Janiger, Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Owsley, the Grateful Dead, the Acid Tests, and so many more. 

The Yage Letters Redux

By William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg,

Book cover of The Yage Letters Redux

Why this book?

When I first read the 1975 edition of the 1963 City Lights classic, The Yage Letters, it was an unaccompanied and unabridged dive into two of the best minds of the Beat Generation. There was no contextual introduction, nor appendices, just a perplexing series of epistolatory “letters” exchanged as Burroughs searched for yagé (aka ayahuasca) in the Putumayo region of the Amazon in 1953, and Ginsberg followed suit seven years later (notably the McKenna brothers followed suit ten years after that). This extraordinary little book began with Burroughs writing to Ginsberg from the Hotel Colón on January 15 (“Dear Allen, I stopped off here to have my piles out”), and ended back in Panama with the epilogue “Am I Dying, Meester?” a flickering collage of memories sampled from earlier letters.

A few years later, the expanded 2006 Redux edition was published, featuring an introduction by Oliver Harris which offers an essential companion to the letters, explaining their background, the “cut up” style of the letters, and the significance of the material. The Redux also includes excerpts from Burroughs’ unpublished “Yage” manuscript from which his 1953 letters derived. This is a fascinating literary excavation guided by a Burroughs expert. 

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?

The rollicking work of creative non-fiction that is the closest we have to a memoir, penned by the man Leary later dubbed “the Timothy Leary of the nineties.” The Magister Ludi of language, patron saint of psychedelics, holy fool, triple scorpio, I Ching decoder, timewave surfer, butterfly hunter, sheesh smuggler, mushroom cultivator, DMT hyperspace traveler, “machine elf” consortee. All reside in the repertoire of Terence Kemp McKenna, and all make their appearance in this classic freak odyssey. Featuring McKenna’s travails in Nepal, Tokyo, Sulawesi, among other locations, the chief subject is the sojourn to the Columbian Amazonas in Feb-Mar 1971, where Terence and his brother Dennis went in search of DMT, only to stumble upon a bounteous supply of Psilocybe mushrooms. La Chorrera is depicted as ground zero of psychedelic history and culture, the site of an “experiment”  that would alter the course of their lives and send Terence on a quest for the “transcendental object at the end of time.”

Suffused with alchemy, millenarianism, hyperspace, and redemption, the journey was a psychedelic rite of passage that takes its place in a fabulous tale dissolving the boundary between truth and fiction, and that rivals other literary accomplishments in the “psychedelic” tradition (such as Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater). True Hallucinations has a background as fascinating as the book’s content. While published in 1993, the book has a twenty-year production history. First released as a “talking book” in 1984, the work began as an effort to resolve the “UFO enigma” that possessed McKenna in the wake of his experience with a “flying saucer” in La Chorrera in 1971. This book convinced me that a biography of McKenna ought to be attempted.

High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

By Erik Davis,

Book cover of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

Why this book?

Davis’ style is analytical swank and this excavation of the 1970s is his odyssean opus. High Weirdness is a fascinating trip of a book in which the psychedelic epiphanies and freak experiences of Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick are each explored and compared for their extraordinary contributions to “consciousness culture,” and for their entrees on the radical form of realism Davis calls “weird naturalism.” The book serves as a remarkable introduction to each of the trio upon whom Davis has made extensive study, from the epicenter of the weird that was the 1971 Experiment at La Chorrera, to the origins and impact of the Discordian “mindfuck,” to Dick’s “perturbations in the reality field,” notably the 1974 events he named “2-3-74.” In the literature, philosophy, and practice of each we see “freak bricoleurs cobbling together their own technologies of the self.” Across this extensive freakography, we have a remarkable analysis, superbly illustrated, persistently rich in texture and synthesis, and never boring. 

PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story

By Alexander Shulgin, Ann Shulgin,

Book cover of PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story

Why this book?

This indispensable pair of companion volumes created by the Shulgins and known by their acronyms represent a literary and alchemical “gold mine.” Committed to the synthesis and assaying of hundreds of new compounds, chemist Alexander Shulgin dedicated his life to the public dissemination of potential psychotherapeutic aids, most notably MDMA (which he synthesized). A collaboration with his wife, Ann, these books represent Shulgins’ life achievement. They include detailed and precise reports by the Shulgins and the psychonautical group of friend-volunteers who bioassayed newly discovered molecules. PiHKAL ("Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved”) focuses on psychoactive phenethylamine chemical derivatives, and TiHKAL ("Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved”) focuses on tryptamines. The books are arranged into two parts. The first part of both volumes is fictionalized autobiography. In PiHKAL, the couple shares their accounts of their chemically augmented romance, including thoroughly endearing portraits of their experience with mescaline in Golden Gate Park.

TiHKAL, provides a continuation, featuring a collection of essays addressing topics ranging from psychotherapy and the Jungian mind to the prevalence of DMT in nature, ayahuasca, and the War on Drugs. Combined, the second parts of both books describe hundreds of psychedelic compounds (most of which Shulgin created himself), including detailed synthesis instructions, bioassays, dosages, and other commentary. These volumes are generally extremely well priced for what you get. Transform and Synergetic Press are destined to re-release an edition with multiple photographs. 

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