Titles are listed alphabetically by author. Where possible, hyperlinks to relevant web resources have been added. All information is provided for entertainment and subversive self-development only.
The Haunting of
Hill House Shirley Jackson
This story is the basis for one of my favorite movies, The Haunting. (1963) An evil old house becomes the subject for a paranormal investigation. But are the ghosts in the house, or in the hearts of the visitors? Campy and scary all at the same time.
The Varieties of Religious Experience William
Required reading for any student of humankinds impulse to the Divine.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
The startling thesis of this book is that, until the second millennium B.C., human beings had no subjective consciousness, but acted on the basis of hallucinated voices. These voices were attributed to the king or the gods; Jaynes hypothesizes that they originated in the right brain hemisphere. His extensive evidence is literary, archaeological, and neurological, and comprises a compelling 475-page argument. It is proposed that bicamerality -- the condition of acting on the command of hallucinated 'divine' voices -- represents a specific stage in the evolution of human civilization, that in fact the ancient ziggurat-building civilizations of the Middle East (and later the Americas) were 'bicameral civilizations.' Such civilizations were rigidly hierarchical, centralized around the 'god-king', whose voice was heard by the citizenry to keep them performing their ordained roles in the absence of conscious volition. The central pyramidal structures, then, served as hallucinatory catalysts for such social control.
Of especial value in this book is the discussion of what consciousness is. Jaynes proposes that it is specifically the projection of an analog self, the "I", into an imagined mental 'space'. This is what bicameral man lacked: the ability to narratize his existence, to envision himself acting in a remembered past or in a hypothetical future. Jaynes further argues that this inner 'space' is a linguistic creation, developed in response to the breakdown of bicamerality following massive social upheaval. I especially enjoyed the analysis of ancient Sumerian, Assyrian, and Greek texts, which reveals an almost complete lack of consciousness-related language. If you find all of this terribly absurd, it is because it is impossible to do such a thesis justice in a space like this. I highly recommend this book -- not to 'convince', but to stir up the imagination. It is all the best of books can hope for. [Houghton Mifflin]
Mushrooms, Molds, and
Miracles Lucy Kavaler
This was one of those odd finds on a used book shelf, which then sat around my apartment for a year or two before I actually picked it up. It's also one of those books that leaves you feeling a little paranoid about the invisible forces at work in the world. Extensive sections on crop-attacking microorganisms and fungal infections of the body provide ample material for an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But this is balanced somewhat by explanations of how molds sustain our diets, our medicine cabinets, our ecosystem, and even our industrial production. Anecdotes on the role these simple life-forms have played in human history were particularly enjoyable, as were the chapters on hallucinogenic fungi and ergot derivatives (LSD). Published in 1965, the book addresses the growing concern over the abuse of such substances, but without the moral indignation which subsequent demonizing of drugs encouraged. [New York: The John Day Company]
Counsels on the
Spiritual Life Thomas á Kempis
Extracted from á Kempis' Imitation of Christ, this is more a practical guide to self-mastery than a religious text. But then, I define "spirituality" as nothing more or less than deliberate self-development. The humility and delicacy of this text stand in refreshing contrast to the heavy-handedness of stereotypical Medieval Orthodoxy, and Christian fundamentalism in general.
Kinski Uncut Klaus Kinski
Kinski manages to slip in a few words about his acting career and personal observations, when he's not slipping it into a friendly interviewer or flight attendant.
The Politics of Consciousness Steve Kubby
A sober, systematic disassembly of the U.S. Government's War on Some Drugs. Focuses on marijuana prohibition, both its moral "justifications" and the social impact of current drug policy. [Loompanics Unlimited]
Freedom From Fear
and Other Writings Aung San Suu
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burmese National hero Aung San, and is the primary figure in Burma's struggle for democracy. This collection of essays is testament, not only to her courage and leadership abilities, but also to the depth and breadth of her learning and culture. Before I read this, I had little knowledge or interest in the situation in Burma, but I must now add Aung San Suu Kyi to that small group of humans who show the way by their lives and actions. Her courage in the face of military repression is inspiring, and all too humbling for those of us who like to critique from the safety of privilege.
Tuva or Bust! Ralph Leighton
A friend of physicist Richard Feynman recounts their obsession with the Siberian country of Tuva, which started with the Tuvan postage stamps they'd collected as kids. Set in the 1980's, the book describes how a trip to a remote part of the Soviet Union was arranged in the midst of the Cold War.
Great Steve Levy
This is the story of the Macintosh computer. Levy emphasizes Apple's struggle to revolutionize computing -- a task in which they arguably succeeded.
Time for the
Stars Alan Lightman
Just a quick update on the status and evolution of astronomy in the 1990s. Projects begun, pending issues, hot topics, with the occasional focus on pioneering researchers. [New York: Viking]
Archaic Revival Terence McKenna
I recommend this as an introduction to McKenna's ideas. It's a collection of essays on topics ranging from the evolution of human intelligence to the end of history.
Food of the
Gods Terence McKenna
In perhaps his best-known book, McKenna puts forth the idea that human self-awareness and linguistic ability were catalyzed by a deep relationship with psychoactive mushrooms. He begins his discussion in Paleolithic Africa, and traces our historical involvement with mind-altering substances right up to the present day. Our obsession with manipulating our mental state, and our propensity to addict to a vast number of substances and behaviors, are, he argues, attempts to compensate for the more fulfilling involvement with plants that we once knew. In light of this interpretation, the prevailing terror of intoxication is shown to be, not merely hypocritical, but profoundly damaging to the individual and to the planet. [Bantam New Age]
Focuses largely on McKenna's Timewave Zero and Novelty Theory. [HarperSanFrancisco]
Hallucinations Terence McKenna
Describes the McKenna brothers' psychedelic experiment in the rainforests of South America. [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco]
The Threat of
American Neo-FascismCarl Marzani
I stayed in a house the author had built on Fire Island, and there was a stack of these pamphlets in a drawer. Writing during the Nixon Administration, Marzani argues that there is increasing potential for a fascist takeover in America. Not fascism a la Germany or Italy, but a more gradual, businesslike erosion of liberties is what Marzani sees. Whether any of these fears were realized in the 27 years since this writing is open to debate. [American Documentary Films]
Reaches of Human Nature A. H. Maslow
Rather than study what is typical or average for humans, Maslow wants to know what our full potential is. So he focuses on the most capable, self-actualized individuals to see what it is that makes them tick. The resulting view of humanity is exciting and optimistic. [New York: Penguin Arkana]
Sweetness and Power Sidney W. Mintz
The basis for the African slave trade in the New World was not cotton, as many people assume, but sugar. This and other tidbits of knowledge about one of the West's most treasured addictions are what make this book worth reading. It's always good to get behind the appearances of basic consumer products, and Mintz digs deep into history to do just that. Tracing the developments of sugar production and consumption in the British empire, Mintz shows how sugar manifested and changed networks of power. What meanings did sugar have to different people, and how did those meanings change? What was the relation between colony and imperial metropolis; between slaves, plantation owners, traders, Parliament, and consumers? How did the rapid introduction of sugar into the European kitchen change people's diets? This kind of investigation is indispensible; it makes you look anew at things normally taken for granted. [New York: Penguin]
The translation of Biblical writings is -- or should be -- a huge stumbling block to anyone proposing a dogmatic interpretation of this ancient book. The Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written is a heavy, elemental tongue which, in its more poetic applications, is capable of generating considerable ambiguity. There is often no simple mapping onto English, nor do vastly different historical and geographical conditions help clarify matters.
In reading a text like the Bible, my approach is not to search for Truth, but for meaning. If one assumes beforehand that there is some Absolute truth contained in these pages, than the need for translation stands only as an impediment to learning. But if it is meaning one seeks, then the opacity of language is an opportunity: knowing that I am reading a translation forces me to consider alternatives. It's not that I doubt (or accept) the historical truth of the Bible -- that's a whole different project. No, this is an excercise in imagination. I let the words conjure up images of places and times, where life was immediate and intense, at times brutal, peppered with love and passion. Often the language used to describe these scenes is quite blunt, and in some of the more traditional translations this comes across as matter-of-factness.
Mitchell's is the third and so far the best translation I have read in that it is a sincere effort to do justice to the original text. One way it does this is by comparing different versions of the same Biblical stories (such as The Flood). In this way it is seen that the Bible was written by different authors, each with their own unique style. Furthermore, Mitchell's selection of English wording is honest, in that he uses his grasp of Hebrew to enter into the world of the authors and the characters they describe. The result is a refreshing change from both the stuffy formalism of literalist translations and the casual paraphrasing of most "modernized" versions. I applaud Mitchell on a job very well done. [New York: HarperCollins Publishers]
The Names of
Things Susan Brind Morrow
It was a book that drew me to itself, quietly, lovingly. Morrow tells of her travels in the sands of Egypt, the land which called her over and over. She fell in love with this land and its people. And with its words. A lover and collector of words, Morrow holds them up as prisms for us, so the meanings fan out beautifully in a spray of color. In this light we see perhaps how the ghosts of childhood can find release in the desert's ancient spaces. There is beauty in every detail of experience, rescued from oblivion by this woman's careful pen. [Riverhead Books]
Detailed study of the many varieties of the South American shamanic brew ayahuasca. [Natural Products Co.]
I Think, Therefore
I Laugh John Allen Paulos
Sort of a Gödel, Escher, Bach Lite, condensed for the layperson. Witty musings on logical conundrums, puns, and paradoxes. Quality bathroom reading! [New York: Vintage Books]
Pharmako/Poeia (Vol. I) Dale
A poetic alchemical taxonomy of various "plant teachers" -- consciousness-altering agents from absinthe to Salvia Divinorum. [San Francisco: Mercury House]
Beyond Birth and
Death A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
I was handed this tiny book outside of Grand Central Station. Swami P. lays it all down for you: the nature of consciousness, the power of the yogi, the spirit world beyond the three realms of the material plane, etc. Pretty standard Vedic cosmology, but humorous because it's tailored to the dazed postmodern. Glibly discusses yogic travel to other planets and snottily chastises the reader's ignorant mortality. Best of all are the full color plates illustrating some of the metaphors and ideals of the Vedas. Run, Krishna, run!
Tales of a Shaman's
Apprentice Mark J. Plotkin, Ph. D.
If you have ever snorted scornfully at concern over the rainforests, this book will wipe the smirk off your face. It is primarily a travelogue, the story of Plotkin's search for medicinal plants in the Amazon. As an ethnobotanist, he works closely with several indigenous tribes and their shamans. A picture quickly emerges of a world on the brink of vanishing. This is not just the rainforest ecosystem itself, which is one of the richest and most diverse on the planet (a quarter of all plant species grow there, etc.) What Plotkin finds is that the extremely sophisticated biochemical knowledge possessed by the native cultures is being lost at an alarming rate. Rapid Westernization, from the influence of Christian missionaries to an increasing dependence on consumer products, has resulted in a wholesale abandonment of 'the old ways'. With the perceived superiority of modern medicine to shamanic cures (a superiority the author seriously questions), few young people have interest in training for the role of shaman. The result, states Plotkin, is that "each time one of these medicine men (or women) dies, it is as if a library has gone up in flames."
Though the book ends on a note of qualified optimism, the reader cannot help but feel ashamed at the short-sighted hubris of our culture in dealing with native peoples. Even in cases where such cultures were not actively suppressed, we have failed to understand that what is quickly disappearing in these remote and mysterious regions is an absolutely vital part of the Human legacy. [New York: Penguin]
Bhagavad-Gita Swami Prabhavananda &
Christopher Isherwood, trans.
Krishna's teachings to Arjuna on the eve of the great battle. This ancient poem teaches the yoga by which a human can overcome the bonds of desire and achieve immortality. "All that he does / Is offered before me / In utter surrender: / My grace is upon him, / He finds the eternal, / The place unchanging." [New York: Mentor]
Upanishads Swami Prabhavananda & Frederick Manchester,
eds. and trans.
The ancient Hindu classic. A how-to guide to realizing union with the Godhead. [New York: Mentor]
Autobiography of a
Schizophrenic Girl "Renee"
A firsthand account by a girl who suffered acute schizophrenia for years, choking on imagined bird bodies and receiving orders from The System.
Even Cowgirls Get
the Blues Tom Robbins
Yeah, the movie sucked, but luckily I read the book first. This was the first I'd read of Robbins. But it had the sprawling playfulness of the Illuminatus! trilogy, and the relentless ruminations on the squirtin' universe that I learned to love in Burroughs. It's weird and irreverent, and matches my personal outlook on Stuff so closely I almost forgot which came first. But if you've made assumptions about this book based on the title alone, I'll spill a bean and tell you it refers to women masturbating in the open prarie. At least, that's what my psychiatrist told me. Get thee to a nunnery! [Bantam]
Rumi's Divan of Shems of Tabriz Mevlana
Jaláluddin Rumi; a new interpretation by James Cowan
I've glanced at other Rumi translations before, but this was the first time I really sat down with him and focused. Truly, there is great passion here, and occasional expressions of pure human longing. But something isn't connecting for me. Frankly I enjoyed the biography of Rumi's life and relation to Shems more than the odes themselves. My first instinct was to suspect the translation. I've felt the same gap with other Rumi I've seen, and perhaps something is inevitably lost from the original Arabic. Or perhaps it is Rumi himself, lost in the moment yet still unable to free himself from the coded sentiment of Sufi symbolism. If this is so then it fails as poetry, unable to convey a spontaneity which is encrypted in esoterica. Then again, the lack may be within myself; having never felt such depth of loss and longing, how could I possibly participate fully in such expressions? I intend to give him -- and myself -- more chances. [Rockport: Element]
CYBERIA Douglas Rushkoff
A bit pop-culture for me, but serves as a decent survey of the gnar of psychedelics, high physics, paganism, and futurism which is energizing 90's youth culture. Hints at something Big and Weird, right there behind that mall over there.
The Adolescence of P-1 Thomas J. Ryan
1970's fiction about the birth of an artificial intelligence which takes over the country's networks in a search for self-identity. Good "archaeological" reading from the days of massive 80-meg IBM machines.