Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan is generally remembered as someone who popularized Science, translating its findings into everyday terms and making it compelling. Less appreciated, I think, is that he was an ardent Humanist. He understood the perils that our technology and historical foolishness posed, yet still held out hope that humanity could reach its potential and expand peacefully into space.

Two things struck me about this book, which was published in 1994. First, there is clear, unapologetic discussion of global warming. To Sagan, there wasn’t even a controversy. He helped elaborate the science behind models of climate change, based in particular on our findings at the planet Venus. I’d known all this, but to hear “global warming” discussed matter-of-factly by a scientist 20 years ago — not as a theory but as an imminent challenge facing humanity — told a lot about the violence that the Bush Administration has done to scientific discourse.

Second, Sagan looks at the big picture. He sees the challenges facing us as a species as perhaps typical of most planetary civilizations at a certain stage of technology. We have mastered tools which can save or destroy the planet, but we have not yet mastered ourselves. Sagan treats at length the question of whether we deserve to explore and colonize other solar systems, when we have wreaked such havoc here at home. His answer, which I find elegant, is that the vast distances between stars make them unreachable without a certain level of technological achievement. The timescale of such developments is much longer than the time we have to avoid any number of self-inflicted catastrophes here on Earth. In short, we are forced to survive ourselves in order to survive to the stars.

It is refreshing, and inspirational, to accompany Sagan on his flights of fancy about the human future. Although his rhapsodizing may annoy some, and though he fails to account for certain disruptive developments like Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnology, one fact remains: we need more scientists — more humans — like Carl Sagan. We need men and women with a firm grasp of Science, an ear for poetry, and a belief that humans have not yet expressed their full potential. Our future may depend on it. [New York: Random House]

Richard Feynman: A Life in Science

An excellent biography of one of the great scientific thinkers and educators of our time. Clearly explains his critical role in the development of quantum electrodynamics, and other aspects of quantum theory, and make the ideas accessible to the lay person. It also foregrounds his unique teaching style, which inspired generations of scientists and endeared him to so many. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys seeing genius at work. [New York: Viking]

The Omega Seed

Which came first, the architect or the cosmologist? In Soleri’s case the question is moot. His designs for urban planning are part and parcel of a vision of universal process which he outlines in this book. Positing Man as a key station on the “bridge between matter and spirit”, Soleri proposes self-sufficient cities, called arcologies, which exist to foster the creative imperative of the human condition. He sees the universe evolving from an initial state of dispersion and randomness to a unified Omega point, where matter is subsumed into a divine unity, where everything that is and was will be resurrected in a solid-state matrix of significance and memory — God.

But Soleri’s God is not the lowering patriarch of the Bible. His God is one which must be created through conscious life, a god which exists not at the beginning of time but at the end. As conscious beings it is our responsibility to foster the creation of God from within ourselves, by aligning our lives with the functional thrust of evolution. To Soleri, evolution is a progression of increasing complexity, consciousness and interconnection, whereby matter bootstraps its way into new modes of becoming.

It is interestesting to read Soleri in tandem with de Chardin, whose vision shares certain parallels. But where de Charin sees cosmic evolution proceding almost inevitably along a natural axis, Soleri emphasizes the role of Humanity in making or breaking the Omega state. We can drop the ball, individually and collectively, and shirk our birthright as God-makers. The result is not punishment in Hell but perhaps dissipation into matter, a return to dispersion and determinism.

Also quite notably, Soleri has put his rather bold ideas into practice. Since 1970 he has been overseeing the growth of Arcosanti — a community in Arizona where his arcological theories can be tested and implemented. It seems to be a viable community; whether or not it truly embodies Soleri’s ideas is difficult to say from the outside. Perhaps participation in one of their 5-week architectural programs would help answer this question… [New York: Anchor Books]


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]

Kahlil Gibran

This Penguin 60’s sampler contains excerpts from Gibran’s The Prophet, The Madman: His Parables and Poems, and The Wanderer. These stories from a remarkable man resound with the poetic sensibility of Islam, speaking of genuine and elemental truths. While excellent individually, as a collection this tended a bit towards the moralistic. Perhaps one of these would be a good speech opener. [London: Penguin 60’s]

Port of Saints

This 1973 text seems to be a lesser-known transitional work of the Old Man of Letters. A narrative like pond ripples, memories of lost days fading into the sky, backdrop of young boys fucking, animal smells, death training. Burroughs populates the devastation of an open, dissipating world with his trademark queer-cowboy machismo. The result is less a coherent story than an evolving cascade of associations, tugging sad soft memories behind it in the jelly-webbed morning light. [Berkeley: Blue Wind Press]

The Cosmic Blueprint

Davies makes a noble and informed attempt to translate the surprising strangeness and coherence of modern cosmology into layman’s terms. Unfortunately it failed to distinguish itself from a number of other books on the subject which got to me first. (cf. The Collapse of Chaos) Instead it merely rounded out the edges of my current understanding of cosmic order, without yielding any new poetic insights. [New York: Penguin]

Rumi’s Divan of Shems of Tabriz

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]

The Black Death

It’s healthy, I think, to remind our well-fed modern selves sometimes just how bad things can get. The Holocaust certainly serves this purpose most persistently, but nothing surpasses the Black Death in terms of sheer powerlessness in the face of disaster. With mortality exceeding 50% in some areas, the plague had profound implications for the social and economic development of Europe. The single most salient feature of the plague is how powerless the most advanced socities of the day were to contain or resist its advance. The implications for our own world are humbling. [New York: The Free Press]

The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana

I was surprised by how analytic this text is, given the subject matter. No, it’s not simply a catalog of sexual positions. This is an unexpected glimpse into the social relations of an ancient and elaborate civilization, and more fundamentally, into the ramifications of love and sexuality. Lengthy sections, for instance, include systematic considerations for courtesans who make a living by shacking up with one or more men. It’s all delivered in a strangely amoral style, completely practical, with little more than a postscript to say, “Act with the good of others in mind.” There is much that is archaic here, but also plenty to learn that is timeless. [New York: E. P. Dutton]


A patchwork of journal entries and story fragments, reconstructed largely from Burroughs’ time in Tangiers. Contains proto-elements of several themes which recur in his later work, sliding through a haze of hashish, heroin, and the intrigue of the “International Zone”. [New York: Penguin]

Time for the Stars

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]

The Hunting of the Snark

The classic “Agony in Eight Fits” tells of the daring crew and their leader at the denoument of their Snark-hunting activities. A chilling admonitory tale for young and old. Read it several times, including once standing upon your head. For the Snark was a Boojum, you see… Annotated by Martin Gardner. [New York: Penguin]


You know that hollow, wind-swept feeling when you finish a good novel and everything in the world seems flat for a day or two? Especially if the book dumps you in a post-apocalyptic universe with blasted hopes and monkeys — ah, but I’ve said too much. Kalki was my first introduction to Gore Vidal, and I must say I liked his stream-of-awareness narrative style combined with a pointed portrayal of international politics. Sexy, funny, frightening; I can’t recommend this book enough! [New York: Penguin]

Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth

A confident call for humanity to realize its evolutionary potential, provide for all its members in harmony, and set out to explore the universe. It’s rousing and timely, but unclear as to who, exactly, needs convincing. I think I would like to read more by Fuller, perhaps of a bit more technical nature. [New York: Penguin Arkana]

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I actually saw the movie before I read the book, and enjoyed it greatly. When a copy of the book came into my possession, I devoured it quickly, and was impressed by how close the movie stuck to it. This is a lot of fun. Thompson does his journalistic duty with a minimum of moralizing, but does take time to satisfy the reader with a few brief editorial observations. Dated now, perhaps, but a necessary archaeology of an ill-understood era. [New York: Warner Books]

The Job

Ostensibly this is a series of interviews with Uncle Bill, but there is little in the way of citation or context. Instead, interviews are intercut with relevant written pieces to make this a conversational pastiche, almost hypertext, of Burroughs’ thinking at the time. Cherished themes in this case are Scientology, guerilla tape-recorder cutups and playback, and short-circuiting word patterns. “The program proposed is essentially a disintoxication from inner fear and inner control, a liberation of thought and energy to prepare a new generation for the adventure of space.” Not as gripping as some of his other work, but good for reference and calibration. [New York: Penguin]

Sweetness and Power

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 Oblivion Seekers

Eberhardt was a free spirit who spent most of her 27 years between France and its colonies in North Africa. She converted to Islam and traveled as a man, even gaining initiation into a Sufi sect. These short stories are crystallized images from her wanderings in the desert, snapshots of lives both tragic and heroic. Everything glows with the heat of the sun on bleached sand, the seductive beauty of the open road, the fiery heart of an adventurer who shrugged the bonds of civilization in pursuit of freedom. [San Francisco: City Lights Books]

The Phenomenon of Man (second reading)

A second reading of this work, after two years of lying fallow in my mind, allowed Chardin’s full vision to unfold before me. Writing in manifestly visual language, Chardin presents the sweep of evolution as a unified whole, a process of Mind gathering itself towards its own center. Some may object to his Christian orientation, but Chardin does well to save his explicit observations on his faith for an epilogue. Frankly, I think he stretches his argument there, but it can be clipped without doing violence to the primary text. The value of the book for me is that it positions Man as exponent and extension of all phenomena of which the universe consists. [New York: Harper & Row]

Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts

With the debate about marijuana prohibition experiencing a resurgence, it is only fitting that a book appears which reviews the scientific research into this ancient intoxicant. Written in a clear but non-polemical style, Marijuana Myths… is not only accessible to the layperson, but perhaps even to politicians. Just to be sure, why not order a few for your elected representatives? With the publication of this book there is now no excuse for maintaining our cynical and hypocritical policies towards this plant. [New York: The Lindesmith Center]

Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles

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]


I really don’t know what to say about VALIS. The intersection of autobiography with science fiction; if you think about that it becomes unsettling. There are indications throughout this story that the events described occurred to and in the life of Philip K. Dick, the author. Well… who am I to say they didn’t? But what are the implications for the rest of us? [New York: Vintage Books]

The Names of Things

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]

Disappearing Through the Skylight

This book is about disappearance — of technology, of Nature, and ultimately, of the human. It is not a social commentary, not a nostalgia for better times. Nor is it searching for Utopia. Rather, through deep analyses of 20th-Century science, architecture, poetry, music, graphic design, and computer art, Hardison shows how history seems to point to its own disappearance. We are vanishing into our own creations. In its own right, this book is an excellent survey of leading-edge thought in Western culture. But it is the implications for the future of Humanity which kept me riveted, clinging to the curves of ideas Hardison traces, following them up and out of the skylight, to which we now seem so close. [New York: Penguin]

The Spiritual Universe

The ongoing impact of quantum physics on 20th-Century thought are probably not fully apparent. Decades after its inception, this model of reality suggests to many people the possibility of closing the gap between science and spirituality. And there are real risks here. A difficult theory, wrapped in the mantle of scientific legitimacy, gives rise to all manner of abused New Age rhetoric. Wolf’s intuitive integration of soul-talk and quantumspeak falls just barely in the “acceptable” zone on my Crap-o-Meter. I say this to his credit. He does seem knowledgeable in the science he uses, unlike some adherants of ‘quantum spirituality’. His text is coherent and detailed, and draws nicely upon the wisdom of many spiritual traditions. My primary criticism, perhaps, is that it is written for an already-sympathetic audience, an audience which assumes a priori the existence of a soul. Far from being a ‘proof’ as the subtitle suggests, The Spiritual Universe merely shows one way in which physical and spiritual models of the world can be made compatible. [New York: Simon & Schuster]

My Education

This “Book of Dreams” presents itself at first as a fragmented collection of journal entries, visionary snippets stolen from sleep. But gradually it strikes the reader that there are recurring themes, a sort of organic narrative. Is Burroughs editing his accounts to suggest a story? Or are his dreams in fact an ongoing report from the Land of the Dead, intersecting the stories of his own life at odd angles? The effect is disconcerting, and in the hollow of unasked questions, potent images well up, whispering of mortality and intrigue, of addiction and “universal damage and loss.” The reader feels privy to some secret ritual of language, where the Word appears almost naked, close to its origins in the bedrock of the Imagination. [New York: Viking]


By all rights, this book should not exist. It goes against everything the shapers of U.S. drug policy have worked for and achieved. Its prequel, PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved), already got the authors in trouble with the DEA. Yet here is volume II, chock full of new information on the synthesis, phenomenology, and philosophy of mind-altering chemicals. What cynical criminal minds could lie behind such a mockery of American values?

The answer is not at all what you might expect. There are the Shulgins now, on the back cover: a couple in their 60’s, with loving eyes touched by joys and sadness. They don’t LOOK like “twisted drug predators” (Steve Forbes’ depiction of supporters of a Washington D.C. medical marijuana bill). Turns out Dr. Shulgin is a well-respected chemist, with a license from the DEA to handle and synthesize scheduled substances. In the succint and sincere essay, “Why I Do What I Do”, he lays down the reasons why he systematically creates and tests (on himself and others) substances which have a particular potential to affect human consciousness. One senses both a rigorous scientific spirit, combined with a sense of urgent humanism, and, above all, a deep love for his work. His research forms the second half, the ‘meat’, of the book, wherein are listed chemical recipes and structural information on various tryptamine compounds, as well as phenomenological reports. This is the part that raises flags in Washington — detailed instructions for synthesizing powerful psychoactive compounds.

The first part of the book consists of essays by Ann and ‘Sasha’, and here Ann takes her chance to shine as a writer, as an observer of human experience. Over half of the articles are hers, in which she shares personal accounts of adventures the two of them have had over the years. Though psychedelics are usually involved in some way, these are not tales for the chemist. She describes the investigation of their home in the wake of PIHKAL‘s publication, and other learning experiences. Most significant, perhaps, is her detailed description of her two years conducting psychotherapy with the aid of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’). This is challenging evidence for anyone who may be unaware of the amazing potential of psychoactives in a therapeutic context. Her recollection of detail throughout these accounts is impressive and realistic.

This is a mighty book. It feels warm with the research and hard work which gave it birth, and with the love and conviction which motivated it. [Berkeley: Transform Press]


It’s like reading a series of journal entries, or story fragments that emerged from journal entries. Yet as the end approaches, turning back to the beginning, I realize it all fits together with a haunting continuity. Phrases float awhile on the page, perhaps to resurface later glinting like minnows underwater. Burroughs seems able to watch the flow of his unconscious mind as it drifts by and PIN IT to the page just so lightly it won’t kill it not yet. Butterfly still flaps languidly on the page.

And there he is again walking around some day later across the street smiled round the corner so long ago the old grey corner blurred sadness in his eyes the corner shop I was walking behind him at the corner said something … one word … no dice flickered across his good bye his mouth a little open there looking for a name it is getting dark boy burglar spots the door open.

“Abrupt question brought me Mister.”

Desolate thin blue overcoat far to go a street sadness in his eyes looking for a name …

Click of distant heels … [New York: Penguin]

Antonin Artaud: 4 Texts

Artaud, electro-shock survivor, scrapes the shit-slimed bottom of his unconscious mind and sculpts poems from the gleanin’s. It’s a challenging read, often inscrutable, but the depths hinted at are within each of us.

And it was always drainage for angels, / and my drainage passed theirs, / the day when / forced to hoe in the syphilitic resins / of a filth organized from the very beginning, / I understood that the hoed one was me, — / and that what you have defecated defecates you / if you do not take / well in advance / the precaution to syphilize, / the penis abscess / IN THE SNOT-SUCKING MUZZLE OF THE WILL. [Panjandrum Books]

Meditations on First Philosophy

I returned to this college text with a renewed sense of confidence. Several years, and much reading and thinking, had passed since I last picked it up. As it turned out, my confidence was partially warranted. But I admit to not being able to stay on the train of thought consistently. Perhaps this is due to a lack of intellectual rigor and preparation, a testament to Descartes’ powerful mind. Or perhaps he himself was rambling and undisciplined. It’s certainly fashionable to dis Descartes in today’s cleverly counter-intuitive climate. I give him the benefit of the doubt, gentleman that I am.

This much is clear: he learned from a great teacher — the clear voice that arises in silence and solitude. And in that inner territory, with so few familiar landmarks, he cleared a trail of sorts. The problem of Cartesian rationalism is not with any flaw in Descartes’ thinking, but in the false assumption that it is the only possible path. Philosophy is intended to be public: let those who have ears, hear. Let those who have better ideas, speak.

Freedom From Fear and Other Writings

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.

Counsels on the Spiritual Life

Extracted from à 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.

The Threat of American Neo-Fascism

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]

The Tao of Chaos

Don’t get me wrong — I think that a correlation of the I Ching with the genetic code is a vital step in expanding our search for illuminating metaphors. And Walter has certainly made a valiant effort. Yet I couldn’t help being somewhat distracted by the author’s style. Her real agenda seems to be selling us on the integration of Eastern and Western worldviews — an admirable aspiration, to be sure, but how many times do we need to hear breathless rhapsodies about “paired period 3 windows creating co-chaos!”? She makes her point, and then keeps making it, over and over, caught up in her own capacity for language, overeager to convey the awesome pattern she senses around her. Maybe it’s just my Western linear worldview, but I would have preferred higher signal-to-noise ratio here. Sorry. [Element]

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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]

The Time Machine

Not much to say about this classic tale. Except that you should never rely on other people’s descriptions, or the movie version, of a ‘classic tale’. Read it. Read it! [New York: Penguin 60’s Classics]

On Liberty and Drugs

IBM and Apple had a baby, and Motorola delivered it. Fanatical Christians and zealous feminists unite against pornography. A sheep has been cloned. Against such features of our increasingly-psychedelic cultural landscape, it should come as no surprise that the fires of the War on Drugs would burn both ends of the political candle. The stereotype of drug-decriminalization advocates is that they are irresponsible and stinky hedonists, or ponytailed socialist intellectuals. Here, however, we have two free-market libertarians — one an economist under the Reagan administration — laying down elaborate and unequivocal arguments for legalization.

Friedman is an economic theorist, and an advocate of limited government. He argues that drug prohibition is economically unsound, and represents a blatant abuse of the government’s assigned role as ‘servant of the people,’ as a protector of individuals from other individuals. Szasz, the ‘maverick psychiatrist’, positions himself against the ‘therapeutic state’. He suggests that the medical-legal system has placed health above freedom as a social virtue, and that we have become acclimated to an increasingly paternalistic system, which ‘protects’ us from ourselves.

The arguments against Prohibition are rousing enough, but the authors surely ruffle some feathers with their hard-hitting libertarian solutions. Friedman goes so far as to suggest that the FDA should be eliminated. Generally, the idea is legalization for adults, treating currently ‘illicit’ ‘drugs’ the same way we treat alcohol and tobacco: as commodities subject to market competition. Food — and perhaps drugs — for thought. [The Drug Policy Foundation Press]


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]

On Great Men

A series of lectures given in 1840 addresses the role of individuals in history, the various forms they can take, and certain unifying characteristics of this class of “Great Men”. At points Carlyle passes from scientific inquiry into rhapsody, and occasionally from there into fawning effluence, and his British provincialism emerges in the discussion of Napoleon. But beneath all this is an eloquent, if brief, glimpse into the intellectual thought of Post-Enlightenment Europe. [New York: Penguin 60’s Classics]

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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]

The Art of War

Best to avoid war, of course, but when commanded by the sovereign, or otherwise faced with conflict, ya might as well win. The main message of the book, taken at face value, is: “Be opportunistic, and be smart — the stakes of war are too high to be won or lost on impulse.” The Tao flows through all things, and war is one of its faces; but how far can one generalize from the principles outlined here, before all life appears as one an unceasing battle? [Dove Books]

The Elements of Gnosticism

A brief but sympathetic survey of gnosticism, the Christian heresy which rivalled the Church for centuries. Though the term ‘gnostic’ applies to many different movements, the core belief — and the supreme heresy — was that salvation is achieved only through divine gnosis, or knowledge. The dogma and rituals of the priesthood were thus irrelevant and restrictive. Holroyd traces the persecution and influence of various gnostic and related groups throughout history, with satisfying tangents into hermeticism, William Blake, and Carl Jung. [Element]

Beyond Birth and Death

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!

Food of the Gods

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]

The Human Body

Exactly what the title says. This is a detailed explanation, in layman’s terms, of most of the body’s major parts and systems. Especially interesting are the discussions of how and why certain features may have evolved. This is a useful ‘refresher course’ for anyone who wants to understand the basics of what we are, physically. [New York: Mentor]

The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Originally published in 1956, this book describes the discovery of and subsequent controversy surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Davies outlines the implications of these apparently pre-Christian texts, found near the archaeological site of an Essene monastery. The Essenes were a relatively large Jewish sect living in Palestine before and during the time Jesus lived. They were generally pacifist, pastoral, ascetic, and communal. That these scrolls, whose content in part anticipates Christian thinking, were written some time before Jesus, suggests that he may himself have drawn upon such pre-existing ideas. He may even have been an Essene himself. Not knowing the state of research since this book came out, and having not (yet) read the New Testament, I am ill-equipped to assess the full implications. Still, I can say that this book offers some strong medicine for the received orthodoxy of the Church — without diluting whatever message of truth might hide behind it.

Steal This Urine Test

You’ll get plenty of all-American activist zeal and about a quart of practical tips in this sparkling specimen. Addresses the history and excess of America’s hypocritical preoccupation with ‘the drug problem’, then targets the Reagan-era “solution” of massive random urine screening. You’ll wrinkle your nose at the pungent odor of bad government. (The book was published in 1987, however, which renders it better for historical reference than as a meditation on current policy.) [New York: Penguin]

The Youngest Science

This is as much a general history of 20th-Century medicine as it is an autobiography of this respected researcher. Thomas reveals nooks and crannies of the medical profession — and of New York City — which might otherwise go unknown. [New York: Penguin]


Jerusalem, sobering in its antiquity, holy to a fourth of the world’s population, stands in stubborn enigma against the folds of the Judean desert. The jacket marks this as a “travel” book, but the label falls short of the truth. Thubron paints Jerusalem, past and present (circa 1968), in bold, sweeping strokes and sudden filigrees of anecdotal detail. The overall theme is the balance between what is real in Jerusalem, and what lies projected upon it by the hope of at least three religions. The New Jerusalem, symbol of release for suffering Humanity, lies somehow embryonic within the alleyways and agonized stones of this city. Thubron searches for the font of this holiness through the ruins, markets, shrines, and caves of the city, and through the millennia which drowse heavily upon it. He shares his observations with the poetry of an enchanted outsider, neither believing nor cynical, but seeking only to elicit the mystery of Jerusalem from the ravages of so much humanity. [New York: Penguin Books]

Fire in the Brain

In the spirit of Oliver Sacks, Siegel draws on his reasearch as a neuropsychiatrist to relate these “Clinical Tales of Hallucination.” The case studies include experiences with visionary drugs, dreams, imaginary companions, and life-threatening crises. They are quite engaging, even if spruced up a bit for the sake of a good story. While leaving room for speculation about the mysteries of the human mind, Siegel’s psychiatric background compels him to overemphasize the unreality of hallucinations. His quick distinction between “false” and “real” impressions would no doubt exasperate philosophers of consciousness, but then he doesn’t go as far as to deny that hallucinations can serve a definite, even positive purpose. In the end, he neither dismisses nor sympathizes, but tends to leave the ‘meaning’ of the tales provocative and open-ended. [New York: Penguin]

The Dream Assembly

These “tales of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi” are all delivered in the suitably rabbinical form of the parable. Either told by or involving Rabbi Zalman and his band of Hasids, the stories illustrate specific ethical and spiritual principles with clarity and wit. It’s pretty dense with Yiddish and Hebrew terms, but I found the glossary useful in decrypting the more esoteric goings-on. Will no doubt repay later re-reading. [Nevada City, CA: Gateways]

The First Step

This book was given to me by my grandmother, a friend of the author. Subtitled “A Guide for the New Jewish Spirit,” it is a practical discussion of bringing Jewish tradition into union with modern lifestyles and spiritual needs. Although somewhat atypical for my current reading regimen, I found Zalman’s words to be straightforward, non-dogmatic, and eminently wise. He speaks from the standpoint of the Jewish experience, but his teachings embrace the common elements across many spiritual and mystical traditions, and so provide a suitably pluralistic and progressive basis for ‘right living’ in the modern world. [New York: Bantam]

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice

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]

Comes the Millennium

Purporting to be “a look at the burgeoning hysteria, religious mania, and anti-intellectualism as the millennium approaches,” this book is actually a polemic against the much narrower threat of the “Christian Right”. The premise is that, due to religious extremists’ apocalyptic worldview, we should be very concerned about our survival past Dec. 31, 1999. Blake, a self-professed “rational person”, takes this threat quite seriously, it seems, though he fails to offer much in the way of actual doomsday scenarios, other than Ronald Reagan starting WWIII. He goes about dissecting and refuting the political and pseudoscientific claims of fundamentalist bigots — claims which are patently absurd to begin with. His critique is meticulous indeed, explaining to us the many reasons why racial diversity, sexuality, homosexuality, secular humanism, and the theory of evolution are valid areas of human activity, instead of the work of Satan. But reading his litany of self-evident arguments I began to wonder, “Why bother?” Rationality is only an antidote for irrationality once its premises have been accepted. It is not the case that irrationality exists only to the degree that reason is absent; they are qualitatively different, not opposites. What Blake does is to engage his somewhat contrived enemy on its own terms, thereby keeping the debate on a level not much higher than the average Geraldo showdown. When I finished the book, I felt that I had just been lectured to by a sophomoric high school student. For a rationalist, Blake is embarrassingly smug, and besides, doesn’t he know the world isn’t going to end until 2012?


The famous semi-fictional documentary of an addict’s universe. Tells of pleasure, pain, craving and curiousity in a matter-of-fact tone which is both chilling and revealing. Written before the cut-up period, the story is clear and straightforward, with no attempt to justify or excuse the problems it uncovers. In an ongoing atmosphere of hysteria over ‘drugs’, this book remains a realistic review of the myths obout use and addiction, from someone who’s actually been there. [New York: Penguin]

Process and Reality

An elucidation of the general metaphysical principles underlying everything. Whitehead attempts a rigorous and consistent system for explaining how novel actuality enters into the world. He seeks to coordinate metaphysics with the revolutions of both quantum physics and relativity theory, while picking and choosing elements from Eighteenth-Century philosophy. The resulting massive tome has at its heart a vision of a universe in constant re-creation of itself, in which each part uniquely reflects the whole. Reading this, I was both humbled before the workings of so great a mind, and inspired by his unifying and, ultimately, optimistic vision of a world both eternal and ever-renewed. [New York: Free Press]


An archetypal tale of self-transformation. Hesse heaps clarity upon clarity, until you actually believe you’ve grasped the secret of Enlightenment. Even so, you’ll want to go back and reread it. [New York: Bantam]

Tuva or Bust!

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.

Kinski Uncut

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 Global Myths

Explores the four-poled “mythosphere” of primitive, pagan, sacred, and scientific belief. Poetic and respectful towards its subject matter, with some fun stories thrown in for good measure.

The Lives of a Cell

Short, poignant essays by a biologist who also happened to be a wholist and an optimist. Writing in the shadow of the Cold War, he appeals to us to reorient ourselves to the profound Mystery of the world around us. Elaborating in nontechnical terms the complexity of a single cell, Thomas treads with humility, awe, and hope, inviting us to do the same. [New York: Penguin]

A History of PI

Using the calculation of pi as a yardstick, Beckmann assesses the history of human knowledge and society. Draws a connection between free cultures and intellectual advancement.

Holy Madness

Investigates spiritual acolytes from many times and traditions who have flouted social convention as a means of leading others to enlightenment. Addresses issues of charlatanism in our skeptical times. [New York: Penguin Arkana]

This is IT

Watts became something of a “Pop Buddhist” in the 60’s, but these six short essays on Zen and the spiritual experience are a good starter course for the Western neophyte.

The Further Reaches of Human Nature

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]

The Phenomenon of Man

De Chardin, a Jesuit and a paleontologist, lays out his controversial theory of evolution. He depicts the world as a successive layering of increasingly complex conditions, from simple molecules to the biosphere, and up through the ‘noosphere’ of Human thought. The process culminates, he argues, in a transcendent Omega Point, wherein the convergent potential of Humanity is fully realized. [New York: Harper & Row]

The Adolescence of P-1

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.

The Western Lands

When I realized I was going to go back and reread this book as soon as I finished it, I worried that my eyes might stay permanently bugged out of my head. Vengeful souls from Hiroshima launch a raid on the land of the dead. I think. [New York: Penguin]

The Collapse of Chaos

A wonderful book! The first half lays out a compelling reductionist picture of the universe, and the second half demolishes it! Chaos Theory shows how complexity can arise from simplicity. Here the authors ask the converse — how is it that complex systems can behave in simple and consistent ways? [New York: Penguin]


As much a history as an explanation of Chaos Theory. Read it, and then move on to the crazy stuff. [New York: Penguin]


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.

2001: A Space Odyssey

An ancient extraterrestrial race coaxes humanity towards a godlike transformation, via applied technology. Hmmm. Explains all of those “weird parts” in the movie that you pretended you understood to appear cool. [New York: Penguin]