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This is Your Shelf on Acid: Literature and the Perception of Psychedelics

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Gareth James found this witty

Lysergic acid diethylamide (or LSD) was initially synthesized in the 1930s as part of a research programme. By the 50s, the military began their own research programme looking into the possible qualities of the drug. Once the patent ran out in the early 60s, LSD slipped right into the counterculture of the time and became a large proponent in the new age hippy era. It became synonymous with bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and a number of other artists. Well known figures and famous writers, such as the ones listed below, started advocating its recreational use as a potent non-addictive way to open up the mind and touch another plane of existence, a much more spiritual place. Some delved deep and really studied all the underlying layers of consciousness. Others simply enjoyed the experiences and wrote about them, transposing these experiences into fictional and semi-fictional works. Typical trips centred around very colourful and immersive hallucinations and eidetic imagery that helped create a sense of euphoria and dissociation from time and place.

Outside of the many scholarly tomes and psychonaut manuals available, this is a very approachable list of solid reads to get you started.


The man who started it all. Hofmann was the first to synthesize LSD in 1938 and the first human guinea pig to ingest it. This autobiography charts Hofmann’s remarkable career during which he discovered a number of drugs and also synthesized the active compounds of magic mushrooms; psilocybin and psilocin. With these discoveries, his public profile grew and he crossed over into the counterculture of the time as a figurehead (the godfather of acid?). This book documents every small detail from humble beginnings to starry ends.

The psychedelic experience: a manual based on the tibetan book of the dead

The man behind the ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ moniker, Leary became a promoter and advocate for the acid generation. In 1960 while working as a psychologist and professor, he took a trip to Mexico and tried psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. Nothing would be the same again. His book, The Psychedelic Experience is, as you’d imagine, all about taking psychedelic drugs. Uniquely, it uses The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a counterweight to compare and discuss the life, death, and rebirth cycle expressed in the book against the same journey often metaphorically experienced while tripping on acid. A hefty idea, this one is for the seasoned acid bookworm.

The Doors of Perception

Before there was The Doors, there was the The Doors of Perception. Hoping to reach a greater level of awareness of his surroundings and sate his curiosity, Huxley took a carefully monitored dose of mescaline, rather than LSD, in 1953 and recorded the experiment in a lengthy essay that became something of a cult novel. Huxley’s experience was by and large a very positive one – and he would continue to take psychedelics at various intervals throughout his life – and it would seem that Huxley seems to have found that awareness and association with the world on a whole other level. It resulted in one of the cornerstones of psychedelic literature and, some would say, an important piece of scientific writing.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

And now for a complete reversal of Huxley’s approach. In amongst all the drug paraphernalia in Raoul Duke’s car boot were ‘...seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid…’ and Thompson himself was well known to dabble. Here Thompson took his gonzo writing to a whole new level and wrote one of the most iconic books of his generation. This is warts and all, wild, unmonitored, untethered craziness. There were few boundaries for Thompson and the writing and descriptions here are big, bold and exaggerated and really grab the tail of the psychedelic beast being unleashed, teeth gnashing, from one page to another. Good trip, bad trip, it’s all in here.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

To look at him with his frolicsome hair and white suit and tie, Wolfe is certainly at odds with the acid/hippy culture of 1968. And yet, this novel was a huge success when, much like his contemporaries Mailer and Thompson, he slotted himself into the story he was reporting in the name of New Journalism. Wolfe jumps aboard a bus belonging to Ken Kesey (counterculture figure and author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) with his band of Merry Pranksters and traveled the country trying to understand the scene. This book has been called ‘accurate’ and ‘essential’ and the writing is particularly vivid and at times extremely funny. For anyone trying to get under the skin of the acid set, this is a fine place to start.

Center of the Cyclone

Lily was what you could call a psychonaut - one who explores altered states. He was also a philosopher and writer and ingesting LSD was only one of the many ways he traversed the plains of the mind. This book details how Lily combined acid with isolation and flotation tanks as one of the pioneers investigating the boundaries of the mind. It is at times a complex book drawing a lot of inspiration from Chinese Buddhism and some 19th and 20th century philosophers, but it is a fascinating exploratory work that harnesses the deeper depths of the psyche.

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Food Of The Gods

McKenna was a man of many talents (in particular an ethnobiologist) and wrote books on a range of topics, but he kept coming back to the human consciousness and psychedelic drugs. He believed the two went hand in hand if you truly wanted to discover yourself, mind, body and soul. Reminiscent of Burroughs’ search in the Yage Letters, Food of the Gods sees McKenna travel the Amazon meeting tribes, taking part in ancient rituals and conducting research into the use of various jungle plants, while also giving us a chapter by chapter lesson on how the human element has always interacted with the chemical/plant element over centuries. McKenna’s book is a simply written story about the history of our consciousness. 

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The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Way back in 1965, this might have been a cautionary tale of things to come from a visionary. Certainly, in many ways it mirrors our present reality with frightening new unregulated drugs appearing on the market all the time. Dick was a well known psychonaut and channelled a lot of his own hallucinations and madness into his work, none more so than The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. His titular character, Eldritch, returns from an interstellar trip carrying with him a new drug, Chew-Z; a vastly more potent recreational drug than the widely used Can-D. Is the world ready for it? This is a bit of a mindbender of a novel with Dick’s imagination running riot and it certainly will challenge the reader with its twists and turns, but a lot of it - resettling in colonies on Mars, psychedelic holidays, religious cults - all seem horribly possible in the near future.

Featured image via Getty Images.


Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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