Themed Recommendation List: 60’s California Drug Culture

As any good nerd, I find unmatched joy in making rich connections between the many media I may be consuming at any time. My usual routine is to be reading a fiction book, listening to a nonfiction book, watching a television show throughout the week, and spending time catching up on movies over the weekend. When these different forms of storytelling overlap, on purpose or on accident, I am one happy camper. 

To me, these connections, especially when they are unintended, are the epitome of learning. I am consuming these separate stories that naturally coalesce into one idea in my mind. I remember first noticing this ‘coalescence’ while reading, watching, and listening to a series of works that revolved around the 1960s, specifically in or around California and its drug culture. 

So here is my themed recommendations for learning about the 1960s and its influential drug culture.

Nonfiction- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

It is not hard to decide where to begin this themed recommendation list. Tom Wolfe wrote the book on drugs in the sixties in California with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Focusing on Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters, Tom Wolfe captures life through the eyes of these acid dropping beatniks. The book is not just a great introduction to the topic, but also to Tom Wolfe, who’s unique style that aims to capture the ‘feel’ of the scene he is reporting on finds no better outlet than giant acid fueled party trips with punch bowls full of LSD laced kool-aid. It’s a wild ride, that beckons more follow up to an era that feels so bizarre and explanatory. The drug culture was about breaking out of the norm and living life in a new way, and this book is written as an example of deviating from the way things are supposed to be. 

Nonfiction- Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

It makes sense that a topic this strange would have authors who are as bizarre as the stories they write. Tom Wolfe’s eccentricities may only be outmatched by Thompson’s gusto for putting himself not near the action, but a part of it. Hell’s Angels is a not so creatively titled book about Thompson’s time in/with/whatever Thompson does, the Hell’s Angels. One of the oddest discoveries I made about the drug era in California is that it was heavily connected to the motorcycle club. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test included frequent visits by the Hell’s Angels to La Honda to have LSD and alcohol fueled all-night binges, and Hell’s Angels explains that type of lifestyle in greater detail, as well as what made this legendary club tick and the reason public perception about them is as it is. And all of this is done in the over-the-top and dramatic first-person perspective of Thompson, who inebriates himself to a sufficient degree, often enough, to be able to do these inimitable men justice.

Fiction/Movie- Inherent Vice (book by Thomas Pynchon)

Soooo technically this story happens in 1970, but the main character “Doc” is very much a product of the 60s. The story is done in a noir-style with a drug induced inept version of Philip Marlowe as the detective. And it is a fun fiction extension of the two nonfiction pieces, including both the drug culture of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the motorcycle culture of Hell’s Angels. Inherent Vice is both a book, by Thomas Pynchon, and a movie, with Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. I was going to pick one to recommend, but why not both? The book does a better job at capturing the mood of the period, and the movie helps viewers understand the very Pynchon-esque plot, that can be as confusing as it is entertaining. 

Documentary/Nonfiction- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (book by Lawrence Wright)

In this case, I think the documentary is better, but the nonfiction book is great too and serves as an awesome compendium of sorts, to the boiled down documentary. Scientology got its rise in the 50s and the 60s, and the seeker drug culture- based on alternative and oftentimes mind-bending ways to improve oneself, without professionals or medications- contributed to its rise. There is a reason the Purple Palace of Scientology is in California. So as a reader or watcher goes through the journey into L Ron Hubbard’s mind (which this documentary offers), they discover a man who tried to exploit a cultural movement that reflects the era. It is an interesting way to learn about this period, through the mind of a man bent on making money off of it, as told by those who fell for the trap.

Fiction/Movie- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (book by Ken Kesey)

This is my favorite book of all time, and much more popular as a film, so again- might as well do both. If all this started with the awesome influence of Ken Kesey and his representation of an entire movement, we might as well read his masterpiece. In the context of all these other works, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest becomes a book about escaping the trap of society, of not believing the lie that you are the crazy one, trying to live life and transcend the ties that bind. It’s a dazzling work all by itself. As a reflection of the era shown in the works above- it is as fascinating as anything you’ve read this year.

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If you liked this, you may also like:
A Very American Reading List
My List Of Most Read Authors By Book Count
My Top 50 Favorite Nonfiction Books (Ranked)
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
Admiral William McRaven [Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations; 10 Life Lessons]

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