You enjoyed the Across the Universe movie? Or maybe you’ve read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (2018) and are fascinated by stories of altered consciousness? Then this is the reading list for you…
Start reading A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick
Why you’ll like it: This exciting mystery-thriller transports you to a drug-fueled dystopia of Orange County, California, where Substance D allows the two brain hemispheres to function independently (but is it worth it?)
Length: 219 pages
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson
Why you’ll like it: Blending fact and fiction in a drug-fueled kaleidoscope, Thompson’s novel (illustrated by Ralph Steadman) recounts a quest for the American Dream in Las Vegas, following the disenchantment of the 1960s.
Length: 204 pages
White Noise (1984) by Don Delillo
Why you’ll like it: Quite the opposite of the counterculture narratives that dominate this list, Delillo’s novel showcases the mundane ubiquity of pharmaceutical drugs, and how we rely on them to habitually alter our consciousness… but to salutary or destructive effect?
Length: 320 pages
The Doors of Perception (1954) by Aldous Huxley
Why you’ll like it: Perhaps the most beautiful description of a psychedelic experience of all time; based on Huxley’s heroic dose of mescaline. But beware when you open this book for “the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.”
Length: 24 pages
Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs
Why you’ll like it: This is a “choose your own adventure” book, before that was “a thing.” Read the chapters—a loose series of vignettes—in any order. You’ll be transported with the junkie narrator through familiar landscapes (America and Mexico), to the more exotic (Morocco), and finally, the unplaceable Interzone. In 2010, TIME included Naked Lunch on its “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005” list. Pretty prestigious for a renegade druggie story.
Side note: if you enjoyed this novel, also read On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac, a fellow Beatnik. You’ll find a similar tale of geographic and psychic adventure.
Length: 289 pages
Howl (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
Why you’ll like it: An illustrated poem that will bring out your angst, desire, and creativity while sensually exploring the contours of an alternate 1950s America.
Length: 224 pages
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (completed 1926, published posthumously in 1943) by H.P. Lovecraft
Why you’ll like it: An epic quest that showcases rideable zebras, cats that save the day from moon-beasts, precious gem-plated cities, and the land of the gods.
Length: 142 pages
“Pallinghurst Barrow” (1893) by Grant Allen
Why you’ll like it: The protagonist takes a hearty dose of cannabis indica when he gets a headache at his proper Victorian dinner party, then goes for a ramble in the countryside. Unfortunately, it’s the autumnal equinox and he doesn’t realize what awaits him on the hill.
Length: 20 pages
“Green Tea” (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu
Why you’ll like it: The “doors of perceptions” aren’t totally shattered in this one, but the poor guy’s consciousness is definitely altered by his enormous consumption of green tea. See what this stimulant awakens deep in his psyche…
Length: 40 pages
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
Why you’ll like it: You thought the Disney movie was delightfully weird? The book is better (as per usual). Carroll absolutely revels in word play, something that’s easier to appreciate while reading rather than watching/listening.
Length: 96 pages
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
by Thomas De Quincey
Why you’ll like it: Like the Beatniks (who got it from De Quincey) this novella combines the urban and mental landscapes in a devastatingly evocative story of human compassion, missed connections, metropolitan exploration, sublime art, and vast suffering. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the great urtext of altered consciousness.
Difficulty: Hardish (the older style can be off-putting to the modern reader, but the story itself is straightforward)
Length: 80 pages
“Kubla Khan”(completed 1797, published 1816) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Why you’ll like it: A pleasure-dome. Demon-lover. And caverns measureless to man… this poem has all of the surreal imagery you’ve read in the fiction so far. But, on another level of artistic genius, it shows off the metrical playfulness and aural beauty of poetry.
Difficulty: Hardish (poetry haters, fear not… there’s not “right way” to interpret this one)
Length: 54 lines
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (1790) by William Blake
Why you should read it, even though it’s hard: This poem inspired Huxley with the title for The Doors of Perception. In Blake’s words: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” This mind-bending poem asserts dichotomies just to turn them on their head and shatter them entirely. Blake rekindles the most banal seeming proverbs with the utter profundity that underlies them.
Length: A few pages (depending where you read it) of poetry, prose, and engraved images.
The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish
Why you should read it, even though it’s hard: While scholars more judiciously call this novella proto-science fiction or utopian fiction, I’d like to point out that it’s pretty darn trippy! I mean, “fish men” pulling submarines and “bird men” dropping “fire stones” in the 17th century?! No, the Duchess of Newcastle, was not growing psilocybin mushrooms on her manor lawn. She was a totally lucid, extremely brilliant, bad ass woman who published under her own name when most authoresses published anonymously. Read this work to revel in the hyper-imaginativeness of a great historical woman! (I also realized that every author on this reading list was a man, and found that disturbing. Seeking feminist psychonaut to write the next great work of psychedelic fiction.)
Difficulty: Very hard (it’s old)
Length: 94 pages