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 Dream Assembly Collected & Retold by Howard Scwartz
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 Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
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]

TIHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved) Alexander and Ann Shulgin
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]

Fire in the Brain Ronald K. Siegel
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 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 Omega Seed Paolo Soleri
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 Diamond Age Neal Stephenson
Another fun-filled futuristic fantasy from the prankster who brought us Snow Crash Explores the world and the human mind in the age of nanotechnology. Whee!

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony Lewis Thomas
"Get us through the next few years, I say, just get us safely out of this century and into the next, and then watch what we can do." [New York: Penguin]

The Lives of a Cell Lewis Thomas
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 humilty, awe, and hope, inviting us to do the same. In the process, he seems to have inspired an insipid pop band. [New York: Penguin]

The Youngest Science Lewis Thomas
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]

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
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 Art of War Sun Tzu, adapted by Stefan Rudnicki
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]

Jerusalem Colin Thubron
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]

Kalki Gore Vidal
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-- 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]

The Tao of Chaos Katya Walter
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]

This is IT Alan Watts
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 Time MachineH. G. Wells
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]

Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead
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]

The Spiritual UniverseFred Alan Wolf, Ph.D.
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]

Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts Lynn Zimmer, Ph.D. & John P. Morgan, M.D.
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]


[Return to the Reading Room]