Cover art from created using DALL-E 2 (prompt: Psychedelic Library Inception) and Canva, by author

In the corner of the dark, cold storage room of my family’s basement, a collection of fascinating books awaits. Broadly about altered states of consciousness, but mostly about psychedelics, this collection covers the history, science, and cultural impact of psychedelics and altered states. Almost entirely non-fiction – with the exception of the semi-fictional narrative portions of PIHKAL and TIHKAL – the collection contains diverse formats, including hardcopies, paperbacks, digital copies, a signed copy, and limited-edition publications. Stacked precariously on top of a dresser, they await their next psychedelic-curious reader. This is their story.

This collection was developed organically over a period of several years. Initially, my interest in psychedelic science was kindled in my senior year of high school by discovering the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science (MAPS) and by listening to Sam Harris’s podcast and reading his book Waking Up. One of the guests on his podcast was Michael Pollan – the author of the first book of this collection: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The podcast came out around the time of the release of this book and I purchased it shortly thereafter, in June 2018, right after graduating from high school. In this same period, the work by MAPS – the organization leading the way in clinical trials administering MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression – was gaining unprecedented momentum. I found out about a conference MAPS was sponsoring in Los Angeles later that June called the Los Angeles Psychedelic Science Symposium (LAPSS). Knowing my dad had promised to take me on a vacation with him after graduating, I impulsively purchased tickets to this event, effectively determining the location and date of that vacation. I’m lucky my dad was forgiving, kind, and open-minded enough to consent to this decision I made without consulting him beforehand.  

On Thursday, June 21, my dad and I flew to LA and attended the conference the following two days. I was enchanted by the presentations, topics, and people at this conference. While we were there, I purchased three more books: 

(1) Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is a memoir by Dennis McKenna about him and his late great psychonaut brother, Terence McKenna. Dennis signed it and I got a picture with him (see Bibliography). Dennis and Terence are two huge figures in the world of psychedelics, known, among other things, for their pioneering anthropological research on ayahuasca and their anonymous publication of a guide for growing mushrooms (in the 1970s). 

(2) The Witches’ Ointment, by part-time historian Thomas Hatsis, a conference attendee I had the pleasure of speaking with quite thoroughly. 

(3) LSD: My Problem Child, by the late great psychedelic chemist Albert Hofmann, perhaps the most important figure in the explosion of psychedelic science that occurred in the mid-20th century after his re-synthesis of his previously discarded creation, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), in 1943, when he discovered its mind-altering properties. 

During my first year of college, I didn’t add anything to my collection but further leaned into my interest in psychedelic science and found a position as a part-time lab assistant in Harriet de Wit’s Human Behavioral Pharmacology Lab here at the University of Chicago. During this time, I spent more time reading research papers on psychedelics and altered states than reading books on these subjects. I also began to explore practicing meditation more and this continuing interest in meditation and Buddhism led me to later purchase Be Here Now by the late counterculture icon and spiritual leader Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert, who used to be a psychedelic researcher at Harvard with Timothy Leary.

In the fall of 2019, I became interested in sensory deprivation tanks as a way of entering altered states of consciousness. Several times that fall I visited the South Loop Location (no longer operating) of Float Sixty, a Chicago-based sensory deprivation tank spa. After one of my visits, I purchased The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea in their lobby. A little-known fact: the inventor of the sensory deprivation tank was John C. Lilly, an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher, writer, and inventor who also famously – or infamously, depending on how you look at it – administered LSD to dolphins and attempted to communicate with them. Lily had a particular obsession with altered states to the point of developing an addiction to ketamine. He almost drowned while immobile on a high dose of it while in one of his sensory deprivation tanks only to be saved in a near-death experience by his wife, who had just recently learned CPR. He was no longer addicted to ketamine after that.

In the fall of 2020, while taking a leave of absence to avoid taking classes online, I participated in UChicago Polsky Exchange’s I-Corps program as a co-founder of the psychedelic research startup Psynautics, the brainchild of my friend and colleague from the de Wit lab, Conor Murray, PhD (a postdoc at UChicago at the time). Through the I-Corps program, we were able to get certain educational resources related to our startup reimbursed. I took advantage of this opportunity to expand my collection, purchasing books that might provide insight into how we were going to design our psychedelic trip reporting app and how we were going to approach our research. Most notably, these included the commemorative editions of Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved (PIHKAL) and Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved (TIHKAL) by famed chemist and psychonaut Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin and his wife Ann Shulgin. Alexander Shulgin was responsible for reviving interest in MDMA in the mid-20th century and synthesized over 200 novel psychedelic compounds in his time. The other books I purchased through the I-Corps program are noted as such in my bibliography. 

Some of my proudest additions to the collection came in 2021. Most notable were my two purchases of Hamilton Morris’ reprintings of Bufo alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert. These are reprints of a 1980s pamphlet of mysterious origins. That was until Morris uncovered them and identified the original author: Ken Nelson. This is a cool story and I provide more information about it in the bibliography. Also worth noting was my purchase of The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact, Volume I, a posthumous publication by Alexander Shulgin (introduced in the previous paragraph).

Regarding the future development of this collection, I certainly intend to buy some more books about psychedelics, but with all that I’ve learned from these books and from following developments in psychedelic research over the past five years, including my involvement with Psynautics and the Intercollegiate Psychedelics Network, my interests have mostly expanded beyond altered states. With this in mind, I intend to purchase more books on other topics, but certainly some more related to altered states eventually. These topics include spirituality and religion, mindfulness/meditation, philosophy of science, and the study of consciousness, more generally. I already have quite a collection of books on these other topics, however, my most distinct and unified collection of books is the collection presented herein, united by my interest in the study of altered states of consciousness. Two books I certainly intend to add to the collection are the next two volumes of Alexander Shulgin’s The Nature of Drugs

Bibliography with all books in collection with additional notes and my pictures with Dennis McKenna from 2018 LINKED HERE

Author’s Note: This essay was originally written for my submission to the University of Chicago’s T. Kimball Brooker Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting competition. Unfortunately, I did not win. With the gracious assistance and feedback of IPN member, Viktor Jolakoski, the essay has been edited and improved for a blog format.

About The Author

Luke Johnson by Waterfall at Lost Valley River Hike in Arkansas

Luke Johnson

Luke is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a BA in Neuroscience. He is currently applying to medical schools and is primarily interested in psychiatry, lifestyle medicine, and primary care.  He currently works as the Operations Director for the Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative (CIRCE) spending most of his time working on CIRCE’s Mental Immunity Project.
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