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Leary on Drugs: New Material from the Archives! Advice, Humor and Wisdom from the Godfather of Psychedelia
by Hassan I. Sirius (Editor)
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Seth R. Glick, 4/29/2009

Calling a book “Leary on Drugs” is akin to calling one “Michael Jordan on Basketball” or “Picasso on Painting.” Since his first experience with psilocybin-containing mushrooms in 1960, the so-called “Godfather of Psychedelia” took over 500 LSD trips, spent years behind bars or running from the law, and turned on an entire generation of people looking to expand their consciousness. This new anthology includes selected writings from the 1960s to the 1990s, each one revolving around the topic of psychedelic drugs. Even 13 years after his death, Timothy Leary still holds the title of the most controversial figure in the psychedelic drug movement.

Many parts of the book are similar to the kind of writings that Erowid produces and publishes. In fact, the first part of the book is mostly a series of detailed experience reports with various substances. Written with the clarity of a knowledgeable user and the skill of a Harvard professor, he vividly describes his visions and thoughts. With unmatched experience, Leary is able to recognize and describe all of the feelings associated with a trip, whether good or bad. Moreover, the rest of the selections include reports on the early gatherings where Leary and his followers experimented with these drugs that were new to most of white culture. One of the few critiques of Leary’s style, however, is the Leary-centric attitude of the majority of his writings. As most people who have experienced psychedelics already know, trips are usually selfish, in that they exist primarily in the user’s mind. Herein, the reader gets a sense from these selections that Leary looked at himself as the main character—the villain and the hero—in all of his episodes. On each page he tries to present himself as the cerebral voyager: simultaneously the psychedelic Sherpa and the American rebel. While he obviously is the main character of the anthology, some selections grow tired with self-importance.

While the chapters reference almost every drug type, the psychedelics—largely LSD and psilocybin—are the most prominent. There are few mentions of his work at Harvard; but his hideaway in Millbrook, New York, and his time on the lam receive ample coverage. Further, other important players in the psychedelic movement like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Aldous Huxley also make frequent appearances. Writings from around the time when he coined his most popular slogans, like “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “just say know”, show that these weren’t just catch phrases, but his way of capturing the spirit of a decade into quotable sayings. Selected anecdotes not only describe the genesis of these sayings, but they also manage to rescue them from the clichés that they have become.

Perhaps the most impressive job of the editors was how they managed to find pieces whose content most matched the attitudes and concerns of the time period. The majority of writings from the 1960s are presented within the context of the psychedelic movement and the new people and drugs that threatened to upset the status quo in America. Similarly, those writings from the 1990s focus on technology’s role in the future. Showing his uncanny sensitivity to the progression of drugs in culture, Leary even predicted the creation of what the media now calls “digital drugs”.

Published by RE/Search Publications, a publishing house known for its progressive and taboo titles, the anthology succeeds in covering the wide range of Leary’s interests and phases related to psychedelics. The novice and experienced alike will be wowed by Leary’s articulation of the mental and physical sensations of his drug trips. While it’s no substitute for experimenting with psychoactives themselves, it’s a good collection of writings for anyone with even a fleeting interest in Leary or psychedelics.

Softcover, 191 pp., including an index and chronology with some b&w pictures. Edited by Hassan I. Sirius with an introduction by R. U. Sirius.

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