The best books about counterculture

3 authors have picked their favorite books about counterculture and why they recommend each book.

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

By Tom Wolfe,

Book cover of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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.

Who am I?

Until the millennium, I was a features journalist with an abiding fascination in Sixties counter-culture. Being a friend of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, I heard Syd’s story first-hand. After having my own breakdown and psychiatric treatment, I decided to apply my experience and interests in writing an account of Syd’s short but sweet creative life. With Gilmour’s tacit blessing, his contemporaries – including Floyd co-founder Roger Waters – gave me access. And through interviewing them, I came to my own understanding of Barrett: by turns a crazy diamond and a dark globe.


I wrote...

Madcap

By Tim Willis,

Book cover of Madcap

What is my book about?

Beautiful, charismatic, prodigiously talented, Syd Barrett virtually invented the British psychedelic scene. In 1966, he founded Pink Floyd. He wrote, played the lead, and sang on their first album. By 1968, he was suffering from severe mental illness. Two chaotic, haunting, solo albums followed before Barrett withdrew to a suburban existence in his native Cambridge. For 35 years, he gave no interviews (save for a short conversation with Willis). But in his half-life, Barrett became a cult: the dead rock star who hadn’t died. In the first edition of this book (2002), Willis traced a hopeful history of rock’s lost genius, helped by family and old friends. For the second edition, following Barrett’s death in 2006, Willis revisited his subject’s terraced home – and his own impressions.

The Girls

By Emma Cline,

Book cover of The Girls

The world might obsess over the charismatic men behind horrific famous killings like those of the Manson family, but Emma Cline is far more interested in the girls lurking in the shadows of those sinister figures. Their longings, the way they move through the world, their own capacity for depravity. Cline’s lonely protagonist Evie is drawn into the orbit of a group of beautiful, careless girls in thrall to a cult leader whose violent vision will drive them all toward a night of unspeakable violence. Through Evie’s intense adolescent gaze, we’re inexorably driven along too. This book was one of those lightning-bolt reading experiences for me: it changed the way I thought about language and creating a vivid, indelible sense of place—in this case, the frantic, dreamy savagery of 1960s California. 


Who am I?

Increasingly, the fiction I’m most drawn to occupies the space between literary and speculative. This space fascinates me both as a reader and a writer. I love stories set in worlds shifted ever-so-slightly from the familiar, where characters are forced to navigate new ways of existing or find ways to escape. Perhaps that’s why so many of my favorite stories—and my first two novels!—tend to feature women in cults or other cloistered communities, caught between their desire for belonging and the potential annihilation of the self. Where do you excavate for happiness in a hostile world? My characters spend their lives trying to answer this question. 


I wrote...

Disaster's Children

By Emma Sloley,

Book cover of Disaster's Children

What is my book about?

Disaster’s Children tells the story of Marlo, raised in a privileged community of wealthy survivalists on an idyllic, self-sustaining Oregon ranch. The outside world, which the ranchers call "the Disaster," is a casualty of ravaging climate change, a troubled landscape on the brink of catastrophe. For as long as Marlo can remember, the unknown that lies beyond the borders of her utopia has been a curious obsession. But just as she plans her escape into the chaos of the real world, a charismatic new resident gives her a compelling reason to stay. And, soon enough, a reason to doubt--and to fear--his intentions. Now, feeling more and more trapped in a paradise that's become a prison, Marlo has a choice: stay in the only home she's ever known—or break away.

Psychedelic Chile

By Patrick Barr-Melej,

Book cover of Psychedelic Chile: Youth, Counterculture, and Politics on the Road to Socialism and Dictatorship

Vibrant countercultural scenes grounded in local rock movements transpired across virtually every country in Latin America during the 1960s-70s. There are now several important books that examine various facets of these countercultural movements, and Barr-Melej’s is one of the best in that respect. Focusing on the brief period of Socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-73), his discussion of Chilean jipis and the political battles waged by the Left to contain this so-called foreign import is fascinating. The book falls short in providing an earlier context to the rise of Chile’s countercultural movement and ends abruptly with the rise of dictatorship—a period that transformed rock music into a site of active political protest. But its merits outweigh its shortcomings, especially the lively narration about the Piedra Roja rock festival, Chile’s equivalent of Woodstock. 

I’ve known Barr-Melej for many years and eagerly awaited the publication of this book, which was one of only…


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by the political aesthetics and political ferment of the 1960s. As someone born in the 1960s but not of the 1960’s generation, this has allowed for a certain “critical distance” in the ways I approach this period. I'm especially fascinated by the global circulation of cultural protest forms from the 1960s, what the historian Jeremy Suri called a “language of dissent.” The term Global Sixties is now used to explore this evident simultaneity of “like responses across disparate contexts,” such as finding jipis in Chile. In our book, The Walls of Santiago, we locate various examples of what we term the “afterlives” of Global Sixties protest signage. 


I wrote...

The Walls of Santiago: Social Revolution and Political Aesthetics in Contemporary Chile

By Eric Zolov, Terri Gordon-Zolov,

Book cover of The Walls of Santiago: Social Revolution and Political Aesthetics in Contemporary Chile

What is my book about?

From October 2019 until the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, Chile was convulsed by protests and political upheaval, as what began as civil disobedience against a metro fare hike transformed into a vast resistance movement. Throughout, the most striking aspects of the protests were the posters, graffiti, and other political graphics that became ubiquitous in Chilean cities. I was in Chile with my family on a Fulbright Fellowship when the estallido social erupted. Our book offers an entryway for understanding this dramatic set of events but also the layered meanings behind the array of political graphics which defined this social revolution, a revolution whose impact continues to reverberate across Chile and Latin America.

Season of the Witch

By David Talbot,

Book cover of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

David Talbot, another New York Times bestseller, wrote this book about the 70’s, and the dark times in San Francisco, including the story of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. It reads like a noir mystery novel even though it’s nonfiction. His book is the best for getting the context of the times, the hopeful 60’s melding into the dark 70’s. Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were a large and tragic part of that story.


Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.


I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Ron Cabral, Judy Bebelaar,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

Strange Peaches

By Edwin Shrake,

Book cover of Strange Peaches

Bud Shrake’s novel of Dallas at the time of the Kennedy Assassination is an excellent example of what I call “eyewitness fiction.” As a prominent journalist at the rabidly anti-JFK Dallas Morning News, Shrake spent time mingling with the far-right millionaires who refashioned Dallas into a “City of Hate.” Yet the politically liberal, dope-smoking Shrake was also a denizen of Dallas’s underworld and was dating the star stripper at Jack Ruby’s nightclub. From these twin worlds, he fashioned this ferocious, comically subversive portrait of Dallas in the months leading up to the assassination.

Shrake’s writing has less in common with his Texas contemporaries than it does with American novelists Ken Kesey, Charles Portis, and Kurt Vonnegut. This novel blasts off so hard it can be a bit hard for some readers to hang on in the beginning. But if you stay with it, and latch on to Shrake’s Dexedrine-fueled…


Who am I?

I’ve been reading, studying, and writing about Texas literature for over 25 years. I’m the longtime literary curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, which holds the archives of many leading writers from Texas and the Southwest. I have a personal passion for the 1960s and have written/co-written three nonfiction books set in the sixties.


I co-wrote...

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD

By Bill Minutaglio, Steven L. Davis,

Book cover of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD

What is my book about?

The madcap real-life story of LSD guru Timothy Leary’s daring prison escape followed by a 28-month global manhunt as he was pursued by an increasingly desperate President Nixon and his henchmen. The book winds its way among the homegrown revolutionaries of the Weather Underground, a Black Panther outpost in socialist Algeria, hash-smuggling hippies from the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and secret agents on four continents. Deeply researched from freshly uncovered primary sources and new firsthand interviews, The Most Dangerous Man in America reads like a gonzo, drug-addled modern American thriller.

Little Brother

By Cory Doctorow,

Book cover of Little Brother

Cory Doctorow, the champion of nerds everywhere really hit the nail on the head with his book about the state of current politics and society with Little Brother. This book was released in 2008 but seems truer to life now than ever. His protagonist Marcus, watches appalled as the government begins to strip away citizens' rights under the guise of our protection. This book has been called dystopian young adult fiction, but I disagree. It all feels very familiar to the current climate we live in. It can get a little preachy but regardless of your personal politics it’s a must-read for all.


Who am I?

I’m just a book-loving girl working in a corporate world who’s sick to death of the inaccurate representations of technology in fiction. FYI, tracing a phone call is instantaneous, no need to keep that pesky murderer on the line these days. Technology is so ingrained in our daily lives and most people have very limited knowledge of what it actually does, so I became fascinated with the idea of using real modern-day tech in murder mysteries. I got so obsessed with the idea I decided to write it. No Sci-Fi of future tech, it may seem farfetched, but all the electronic wizardry used in my novels is real and accurately represented.


I wrote...

There is No Cloud

By Kat Wheeler,

Book cover of There is No Cloud

What is my book about?

Cameron Caldwell is living her best life…. Well sort of. Turns out moving to New York City isn’t exactly like Sex and the City. But she does have her dream job working for the world's largest Smart Home Technology company. Her job is basically herding cats with an expense account. The monotony of being a corporate sales rep is made tolerable by her two supportive work besties Bill and Phil. But when Cameron discovers something strange in one of her customer's technology her life takes a dramatic turn. Partnering with NYC homicide detective Will Justus, Cameron uses her insider knowledge to help solve a series of murders with the same technology used to commit them.

Free Love

By Tessa Hadley,

Book cover of Free Love

Tessa Hadley’s latest novel Free Love is set in 1967, and it follows forty-year-old Phyllis Fischer through a life-changing year. After a kiss with a twenty-something family friend, Phyllis is moved to leave behind her life as a contented suburban wife and mom, and to enter a very different life in London. Phyllis doesn’t always make the best choices, but she finds her own way twenty years after marrying and having children. Tessa Hadley always writes beautifully layered novels, and Free Love is a compelling look at a family forced to change, as well as a gorgeous evocation of a tumultuous time. 


Who am I?

I’m the author of the debut novel The Wrong Kind of Woman (Mira/HarperCollins). Publishers Weekly called it “an entrancing debut,” and Bookreporter’s review noted: “It’s a strong, strident message delivered in a valentine of a book ...with enough gentle grit and determination to keep you thinking about Virginia and the Gang of Four long after the last page is read.” I’m a longtime magazine writer, and a graduate of Dartmouth College, Stanford University, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. I live in New Hampshire on an old farm, where I garden in the summer and snowshoe in the winter.


I wrote...

The Wrong Kind of Woman

By Sarah McCraw Crow,

Book cover of The Wrong Kind of Woman

What is my book about?

At the heart of the novel The Wrong Kind of Woman is Virginia, a woman who finds her way through grief when she helps bring the women’s movement to an all-male college campus. The Wrong Kind of Woman takes place in 1970-1971, with a setting loosely based on Dartmouth College, pre-coeducation, with the background pressures of the Vietnam War, student strikes and radical activism, and the emerging second wave of the women's movement. Told through alternating perspectives, The Wrong Kind of Woman is an engrossing story about finding the strength to forge new paths, woven against the rapid changes of the early ’70s.

Rebels in White Gloves

By Miriam Horn,

Book cover of Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age with Hillary's Class--Wellesley '69

This book explores a generation of women who often overtly questioned gender norms. Theirs was a generation that imagined it would reinvent the world. These women of 1969 looked at labor, family, and politics through a new lens. The author explores the gender politics of the time and its impact on the personal. After all, this was a class at the crossroads. They were faced with the traditional message for middle-class women as wives and mothers while also being told they could have careers. It is important to note that this was Hillary Rodman (Clinton)’s graduating class.

On Commencement Day at Wellesley, Rodham told her classmates, “We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that an uncertainty. The only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives.” In response, Horn explores the lives of the women as they explored…


Who am I?

I am driven to tell the stories of important but often forgotten women journalists from the 1940s through the 1970s. They were pioneers who also created deep connections in their communities. Over the past few years, I have published several books about women in mass media. My 2014 book documented the history of newspaper food editors– an often powerful and political position held almost exclusively by women. My third book, Women Politicking Politely looked at the experiences of pioneering women’s editors and women in politics which allows for a better perspective of women in journalism today and adds to women’s history scholarship.


I wrote...

Women Politicking Politely: Advancing Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s

By Kimberly Voss,

Book cover of Women Politicking Politely: Advancing Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s

What is my book about?

This book includes the relatively unknown stories of six important women who laid the foundation for improving women's equality in the U.S. While they largely worked behind the scenes, they made a significant impact. In the group are two female political operatives who worked behind the scenes along with four female journalists who also occasionally worked within government to advance women's rights during the 1950s through the 1970s. Much of it centers on Washington, D.C., as well as the more unlikely cities of Madison, Wisconsin and Miami, Florida. It includes the story of a women’s page journalist who published an official government report in her newspaper section when the White House refused to release it.

This book documents the stories of women who organized to help gain employment for other women and also worked to raise the stature of homemakers. 

The Saga of Hawkwind

By Carol Clerk,

Book cover of The Saga of Hawkwind

Carol Clerk was something of a rock star in her own right: a major force in music writing, Clerk’s tough, witty voice continues to resound years after her untimely passing. Her biography of countercultural hippy icons Hawkwind is fascinating, and she weaves together the voices, memories, tales, and travails with effortless brio. Like Nina Antonia, she had a kinship with the musicians she wrote about, garnering stories with ease because they trusted her, and rightly so.


Who am I?

I’m a music biographer, and whenever I’ve hinted that the world of rock biography is a bit of a boys’ club, someone will bark names of famous female musicians who’ve written autobiographies at me. All brilliant, but biography is a different animal. It demands sensitivity, trust, intuition, empathy: the writer is presenting the story of another, wooing a publisher, balancing multiple perspectives, being a detective, asking strange questions, penetrating the skin, probing often forgotten places. Female music writers frequently face assumptions ranging from the dismissive to the salacious before being neatly sidelined, but this is changing – slowly.  I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate some rare queens of the art here.

I wrote...

Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story

By Zoë Howe,

Book cover of Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story

What is my book about?

Musically, culturally and even in terms of sheer attitude, the Jesus and Mary Chain stand alone. Their seminal debut album Psychocandy changed the course of popular music, and their iconic blend of psychotic white noise and darkly surreal lyrics that presaged the shoegaze movement continues to enchant and confound.

Zoë Howe's biography is the fierce, frank, and funny tale of the Jesus and Mary Chain, told by the band members and their associates for the very first time. The story begins in the faceless town of East Kilbride, near Glasgow, at the dawn of the 1980s with two intense, chronically shy brothers, Jim and William Reid, listening to music in their shared bedroom. What follows charts an unforgettable journey complete with incendiary live performances, their pivotal relationship with Alan McGee's Creation Records, and those famous fraternal tensions―with plenty of feedback, fighting, and crafting perfect pop music along the way. It is high time this vastly influential group and sometimes public enemy had their say.

High Weirdness

By Erik Davis,

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

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…


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.

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