The best books if you want to understand the UFO phenomenon

Why am I passionate about this?

I remember as a child reading all sorts of books about spooky things like UFOs. When, as an adult, a scholar of religion, and academic I decided I wanted to write something about how technology and science and the Cold War impacted how Americans believed things, and what they believed in outside the boundaries of traditional religion, I remembered those books. I began poking around in the world of UFO sightings, reading both believers and academics like me fascinated by how this particular network of stories and beliefs have gotten such a chokehold on American popular culture. And I’ve found the rabbit hole just keeps going. 


I wrote...

The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America

By Matthew Bowman,

Book cover of The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America

What is my book about?

Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1961 when they first claimed to have seen a flying saucer. They said a strange light followed them down the highway late at night. Three years later, after hypnosis, they also remembered an abduction—being taken aboard and subjected to medical testing. Over the next decades the Hills were the subject of a bestselling book, a movie, and many television shows.

Their story illustrates a lot about America in the past sixty years. It shows us how UFOs were wound into the civil rights movement, the collapse of New Deal liberalism, and the rise of conspiracy theory in America. It's the story of the 1960s writ small, and how UFOs can explain how we got where we are today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Communion

Matthew Bowman Why did I love this book?

Over the thirty-odd years since its publication, Strieber’s haunting story of his own encounters with strange creatures—perhaps from outer space, perhaps from another layer of reality, perhaps from his own mind—has become the most popular and profound first-person account of alien encounters in modern American culture. 

This is in part due to Strieber’s prose, both fevered and fiercely precise. He was a successful horror novelist before producing this book, and whether one believes he is simply continuing his trade here or not, his story is compelling, terrifying, philosophical, and deeply disorienting.

By Whitley Strieber,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Communion is the iconic classic in which Whitley Strieber describes his 1985 close encounter experiences. This book, which fundamentally changed the way we understand close encounters and alien abductions, is presented here with a new introduction by the author.


The message of Communion, that something unknown is really happening to people but that we have not studied it enough to understand it, remains as timely now as it was in 1987 when the book was first published. And Whitley Strieber's riveting account of what he experienced, along with his relentless and expert pursuit of the reality behind the experience, is…


Book cover of Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore, and Parallel Worlds

Matthew Bowman Why did I love this book?

Vallee is perhaps the most respected researcher in the UFO community.

Holder of a PhD and a successful computer scientist, he began writing about UFOs while in graduate school, and has produced a string of books that have transformed conversations about UFOs among believers. He is perhaps the most influential opponent of the so-called “extraterrestrial hypothesis,” the common assumption that UFOs are spacecraft that have made the trip across the stars.

Rather, in this groundbreaking book Vallee draws comparisons between contemporary stories of UFOs and the reams of accounts of encounters with small otherworldly beings, glowing lights, and strange bendings in time and space that have permeated human folklore and religion for centuries.

Perhaps, Vallee suggests, UFOs are simply the most contemporary manifestation of a much stranger and older phenomenon than simply little green men from another planet.

By Jacques Vallee,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Over two decades ago, eminent scientist Vallee wrote a provocative book about alleged UFO landings, folklore, and certain unexplained phenomena. That long-out-of-print book--which discussed the most interesting reports of more than 1,000 apparently reliable witnessess--has become an underground classic and is now being reissued.


Book cover of The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny

Matthew Bowman Why did I love this book?

Lepselter is a scholar of folklore and anthropology as well as a lyrical and compelling writer.

This book is based on a series of interviews she performed with those who have claimed encounters with UFOs and their occupants. In a series of compassionate, rigorous, and detailed readings of the very words these people have told her, Lepselter unpacks the deep anxieties, blessings, and emotions that run through their tales, and gracefully links them to broader national stories that afflict all of us.

Fear of disempowerment, worry about captivities of many sorts, confusion about the powers that run our world. Lepselter finds them all in stories of UFOs, and in so doing does more than just about any author to explain why these strange craft have haunted us for seventy years.

By Susan Lepselter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Resonance of Unseen Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Resonance of Unseen Things offers an ethnographic meditation on the "uncanny" persistence and cultural freight of conspiracy theory. The project is a reading of conspiracy theory as an index of a certain strain of late 20th-century American despondency and malaise, especially as understood by people experiencing downward social mobility. Written by a cultural anthropologist with a literary background, this deeply interdisciplinary book focuses on the enduring American preoccupation with captivity in a rapidly transforming world. Captivity is a trope that appears in both ordinary and fantastic iterations here, and Susan Lepselter shows how multiple troubled histories-of race, class, gender,…


Book cover of American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology

Matthew Bowman Why did I love this book?

This book is particularly timely, for two reasons.

First Pasulka is a scholar of religion, and she is interested in how—in a time when science has become the most powerful explanatory mechanism for our modern world, in a time when traditional religious institutions appear in decline in the modern West—UFOs have become the focal point for what might be called religious belief, practice, and even power.

Pasulka is interested in people like Strieber and Vallee, passionate students of UFOs who are convinced these things have left marks on their lives and who pursue them with all the fervor of a true believer.

Second, this book is as good an introduction as any to the stories surrounding UFOs that are increasingly in the media today. The strange videos of craft published by the New York Times, the government hearings, the scientists claiming something odd is afoot—Pasulka has thoughts on them all.

By D. W. Pasulka,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked American Cosmic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than half of American adults and more than seventy-five percent of young Americans believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life. This level of belief rivals that of belief in God. American Cosmic examines the mechanisms at work behind the thriving belief system in extraterrestrial life, a system that is changing and even supplanting traditional religions.

Over the course of a six-year ethnographic study, D.W. Pasulka interviewed successful and influential scientists, professionals, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, thereby disproving the common misconception that only fringe members of society believe in UFOs. She argues that widespread belief in aliens…


Book cover of The Myth and Mystery of UFOs

Matthew Bowman Why did I love this book?

Bullard, a scholar of literature and folklore, has exhaustively catalogued more UFO encounters than a casual reader might imagine have ever occurred.

The book delves into dozens of cases, from well-known stories like the supposed UFO crash at Roswell to popularly overlooked events like the Chicago sightings of 2006.

He then distills this myriad of stories down to their mythic bones, trying to understand how the strange raw material of a sighting—somebody seeing an odd light in the sky—is translated again and again through the narratives of film and television, popular culture and academic analysis, and how the UFO becomes a myth: a story that means something to people in our time, and perhaps tells us something about ourselves too. 

By Thomas E. Bullard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Myth and Mystery of UFOs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When United Airlines workers reported a UFO at O'Hare Airport in November 2006, it was met with the typical denials and hush-up that usually accompany such sightings. But when a related story broke the record for hits at the Chicago Tribune's website, it was clear that such unexplained objects continued to occupy the minds of fascinated readers. Why, wonders Thomas Bullard, don't such persistent sightings command more urgent attention from scientists, scholars, and mainstream journalists?

The answer, in part, lies in Bullard's wide-ranging magisterial survey of the mysterious, frustrating, and ever-evolving phenomenon that refuses to go away and our collective…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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