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The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America Hardcover – January 5, 2010


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Book Club Edition edition (January 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061655937
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061655937
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #385,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It's hard for folks who didn't live through the 1960s to imagine what it was like to live in a drug- and sex-soaked culture, one where traditional values were drowned in a rush of hedonism and hippiedom. Names like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass bring back all the memories and all the conflicts. In this beautifully constructed study, Lattin (Jesus Freaks) brings together four of the most memorable figures from that period. Each comes across as a flawed genius and irrepressible fanatic. The author says of Leary that he activate[d] conservative anxiety in America, but this could easily describe any of the players in this grim and gritty story. Laying out their stories side by side in roughly chronological form, the author traces the lives of each of the players, exposing a kind of dysfunctional relationship among them that is not part of our corporate memory. This is a fast-moving, dispassionate recounting of a seminal period in our history, and all in all, a wonderful book. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* This would be a terrific social history of a fascinating historical period even if it didn’t star some of the most important influences on today’s culture. But Andrew Weil remains a guru of alternative medicine and nutrition, and Huston Smith’s books on world religion are required reading at almost every college, while Timothy Leary and Ram Dass are icons of consciousness exploration through drugs and Eastern religions, respectively. So this energetic study of the time all four were together at Harvard tells much about today’s culture. Lattin’s quasifictional techniques (most notably, reconstructed dialogue) bring to life the antics of trickster Leary, who once said that he’d turned seven million people on and only 100,000 ever thanked him, and seeker Ram Dass (originally Richard Alpert), who helped bring awareness of meditation and other Indian religious techniques to the West. Smith, son of Christian missionaries in China and early on a fellow traveler with Leary and Alpert, determined that drugs constituted but a shortcut to the religious ecstasy he sought, while Weil’s opposition was instrumental in ending Leary’s and Alpert’s tenures at Harvard (although he was himself experimenting with the same drugs). Some laugh-aloud passages make this an entertaining read, but the underlying exploration of the sociocultural reasons for the extravaganza that was the 1960s merits attention, especially from those interested in the period. --Patricia Monaghan

Customer Reviews

Simply like reading books about interesting people.
Elizabeth
The story of Ram Dass/Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary is well-documented.
Roberto Loiederman
It is fun reading the reference sources at the end of the book.
Robert G Yokoyama

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Roberto Loiederman on January 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The story of Ram Dass/Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary is well-documented. But the new news in this extremely readable and enjoyable book is how the psychedelic tendrils that emanated from Cambridge in the early 1960s also included an MIT professor who would become the foremost expert on comparative religion (Huston Smith) and an ambitious Harvard freshman who would become the most successful exponent of alternative medicine -- Andrew Weil. How these four lives intersected, how they supported and betrayed one another, makes for fascinating reading. But what gives this book its heft is the fact that Lattin lets us know what happened to these men in the subsequent 50 years, how they feel now about what they went through then, and what the social and political implications are of the revolution they helped to foment and promote.

Lattin understands that the key conflict in the 1960s wasn't so much between those who took LSD and those who didn't, but rather between those who felt that the revolution would occur if enough people took psychedelics and re-calibrated their perceptions; as opposed to those who felt that change would happen only if enough people agitated and protested, radically altering political and social structures. Lattin also understands that among those who took a great deal of LSD, there were two main outcomes: having been exposed to mystical/psychotic experiences, you either looked for ways to change your life according to what you'd seen and learned while on psychedelics; or you got hooked on the high itself, trying to repeat that experience as often and intensely as possible.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a wonderful book, full of insight and compassion. It also casts a cold eye on what those events mean when looked at now, 50 years after they occurred.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Barbara R. Saunders on January 12, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The psychedelic movement suffers from a public relations problem. Hallucinogens have been lumped into the sloppy category "drugs." Thus, the history the author recounts has been buried under generic rhetoric about the ways misguided people use chemicals in their attempts to "escape" from "reality." Tripping is viewed as comparable to indulging in three-martini lunches, cultivating a deadly crack or heroin habit, or taking prescribed pharmaceuticals to make a high-stress grind tolerable. Apparently it took a religion journalist to state the obvious: misguided or not, at least some users of psychedelics are on a quest to find reality not escape it.

I just finished the book and was struck (though not too surprised) to see reports of formative episodes in the lives of authors and others whose work has influenced me. It was a big "a-ha" to see Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dan Millman, Daniel Goleman, writers who I don't immediately associate with psychedelics, and Mirabai Bush, who led a training I attended, tied to the Fab Four protagonists. The twin lenses of biography and religion are used very effectively. This text paints a vivid picture of how people blessed and cursed with extraordinary intellects responded to the question, "Is this all there is?" when graced with the means to explore it, and how they shared the results of their inquiry with the rest of us mortals. The writing is sharp, fun, and clear with a strong narrative arc. Highly recommended.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By T. Brenholts on January 16, 2010
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An absolutely fascinating account of the American psychedelic movement. I give it 5 stars for readability and research, and I knock it down one star because I disagree with the author's conclusion. But you don't need to agree with the conclusion in order to enjoy this well written and informative book; at the least you will find his thesis thought provoking and not easily dismissed. And if you read the book and agree with Lattin, then you may very well have a 5 star experience!
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By William F. Zachmann on January 15, 2010
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Don Lattin has done a fine job creating a contemporary reprise/review of the remarkable confluence of influences that occurred in Cambridge, MA, USA in the early 1960s. I personally knew pretty well a lot of the folks he writes about.

Dick Alpert (a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass) was one of my students when I taught karate for the Harvard Athletic Department in the early 1960s. Tim Leary was a long time friend I had met at the old Harvard Center for Research on Personality at 5 Divinity Avenue in 1961 and saw on and off over the years in various contexts. Tim visited with us on (as I recall) his 64th birthday and gave me a copy of a book by William S. Burroughs that Bill had given to Tim shortly before, inscribing it to him as an "old comrade in arms". (I'd first met Burroughs at Tim's house on Homer Street in Newton, MA in 1962 or so, while Bill was visiting there). Andrew Weil was a classmate (Harvard '64) though not a friend. I attended various of Houston Smith's lectures in those days, too, though I did not know him personally.

Many (perhaps most even) of the other folks mentioned in the book are also people I knew back in the '60s and '70s. Don's book does a great job conveying some of the extraordinary flavor of those remarkable times. It is a splendid introduction to this most peculiar and interesting nexus of American history for younger folks and a great 'flashback' document for all the Baby Boomers I watched tripping their way through the 60s and '70s as well!

Get this book and read it. You will enjoy it. *;-)
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More About the Author

Don Lattin is one of the nation's leading journalists covering alternative and mainstream religious movements and figures in America. His work has appeared in dozens of U.S. magazines and newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for nearly two decades. Lattin has also worked as a consultant and commentator for Dateline, Primetime, Good Morning America, Nightline, Anderson Cooper 360, and PBS's Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. He is the author of Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, and Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today, and is the coauthor of Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.

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