other people's stuff


(completely revised in July 2024)

Thaddeus Golas - The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment (1972)
I've read a lot of reports from altered states of consciousness, and few say anything that isn't said better here. In simple and precise language, with a patient and friendly attitude, and in only 80 pages, Golas covers everything from how to feel good, to self-improvement, to what is real. The first paragraph: "We are equal beings and the universe is our relations with each other. The universe is made of one kind of entity: each one is alive, each determines the course of his own existence."

In a metaphysical sense, "there is nobody here but us chickens." Other quotes: "Giving others the freedom to be stupid is one of the most important and hardest steps to take in spiritual progress. Conveniently the opportunity to take that step is all around us every day." And, "Indeed, there is no other way to form an illusion except by using what is real, there is no other material around."

Charles Fort - The Book of the Damned (1919)
Charles Fort was the original paranormal investigator. He spent 27 years in libraries collecting notices of phenomena unexplainable by science, and put them together into four books in the 1920's, of which The Book Of The Damned is first and best. Here's another source of Fort online.

His philosophy, laid out in chapter one: "I conceive of one inter-continuous nexus, in which and of which all seeming things are only different expressions." Fort's epistemology is that we can't know anything. We can only pretend to know by drawing lines around things that are like waves in the ocean. We can adjust our models to fit new observations, but there is no end to this process. Thomas Kuhn later popularized this idea as the paradigm shift, framing it much less weirdly.

The classic Fortean phenomenon is the rain of frogs, and he has great fun demolishing the conventional explanation that they must have been sucked up in a pond tornado. But in the end these arguments are less interesting than the sheer piling up of anomalies, such that the "paranormal" begins to seem normal. His second book, New Lands, has a lot of stuff about the wide variation of reports in early astronomy, before the sky got nailed down. For more on astronomy, see the fringe science section below.

Beatrice Bruteau - The Psychic Grid (1979)
My favorite pure philosophy book, carefully reasoned and full of good ideas. Bruteau never mentions Charles Fort, but here she summarizes later thinkers saying the same thing:

Alan Watts argues that properties of causality and other popular physical categories are superimposed, all of them depending on the notion that reality is divided into separate events. David Bohm, writing on quantum theory, says that the world cannot be analyzed into distinct parts but is an indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as approximations. Objects, he says, do not have intrinsic properties of their own. "Properties" belong to the system, the set of interactions. John Platt makes explicit the process image by urging that the universe should not be regarded as made up of "things" at all, but of a complex hierarchy of lesser and greater flow patterns in which the "things" are invariant features of the flow.

The book is long out of print, and I've transcribed the key chapter, What is Real? Bruteau calls it "the infinite intercommunicating universe", which is too complex for us to understand without building various psychic grids to interface with it. She never mentions Owen Barfield, but he had basically the same idea.

Owen Barfield - Saving The Appearances (1957)
One of the most interesting books of the 20th century. Barfield insists that he's not writing about metaphysics, because the true reality is unknowable. He calls it the unrepresented, and we can't say anything about it, only about our own representations. The book's subtitle is "A Study In Idolatry", and the idols are the representations of modern science, which declares itself literally true, when really it's just a convenient user interface, like the dashboard of a car.

Barfield calls the pre-modern mindset "original participation", and goes through history pulling out clues about what it was like. "Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved." He's mainly interested in ancient and medieval thinking, and only briefly covers indigenous metaphysics. Two great books that go deeper into it are The New Science of the Enchanted Universe by Marshall Sahlins, and The Perception of the Environment by Tim Ingold.

This book is more radical than The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which Juilan Jaynes argues that the ancients lived in a different world inside their heads. Barfield thinks it was also different on the outside. The mind-blowing idea: reality, not hypothetical reality but practical get-your-hands-dirty reality, is not fixed and passively waiting to be discovered, but correlative to consciousness, and mutable. Other cultures are not driving on our dashboard and seeing it wrong -- they have their own dashboard that can do stuff ours can't.

In the later chapters, he stops pretending to not be writing about metaphysics, and goes deep into Christianity. But I wonder what science could do, if it knew it was creating reality instead of discovering it.

Donald Hoffman - The Case Against Reality (2019)
Hoffman also does a lot of good YouTube interviews. His basic idea is the same as the above books, but his argument is more grounded in science and information theory. What Barfield calls a representation, Hoffman calls a data structure. What Barfield calls a dashboard, he calls a headset. He argues from biological evolution, that seeing the true reality would have less survival value than seeing a convenient simplification, in the same way that a computer, made of billions of logic gates, is easier to use through desktop icons. Even atoms and galaxies are desktop icons, and I would extend the metaphor and say that atoms are a lot like pixels -- seemingly the smallest unit, but we have no idea what's behind them, and if we try to look deeper, of course it's going to get weird.

Roger S. Jones - Physics as Metaphor (1982)
Jones was an actual physicist, and also a follower of Barfield. So he loves science, but he also understands how it's a social construction, and explains in detail how concepts like time and space and matter have been built out of nothing but consciousness and relationships. In the strangest chapter, he argues that causality can only be a small part of the general interconnectedness of the universe, a point also made by Bruteau.

If you understand that there is no "out there" physical world, only various user interfaces that emerge from different ways of engaging with the incomprehensible universal, then the paranormal makes more sense. There's still very little cross-pollination between anthropologists, philosophers, and paranormal investigators, but some is attempted by the next book.

George Hansen - The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001)
A thick, scholarly book that covers the subject from many angles: anthropology, literary theory, shamanism, stage magic, UFO hoaxes, psychic research, and more. The general idea is that it's the nature of these phenomena to only exist on the fringes. How can this work? Why do the results of psychic research get weaker as the studies get more respectable? This is exactly what you would expect if you understand the above books. Reality is correlative to consciousness, so the more perspectives you bring in, as co-creators of reality, the more conventionally reality behaves.

I would add, this even happens in science, where it's called the decline effect. This is a testable statement: Early studies get strong results, but the more studies that are done, the more the results fade into statistical noise.

Another challenging idea in this book is that real paranormal phenomena and hoaxes are not opposites, but that they blend together. For an example of this, I've mirrored an article, Examining Macro Psychokinetic Experiments, in which contrived table-tilting can jump-start unexplained table-tilting.

Jacques Vallee - Passport to Magonia (1969)
Another really smart book about the unexplained. Where Fort is mainly having fun, Vallee is seriously trying to figure stuff out. On the surface it's a UFO book, but already in the preface he reveals that UFO enthusiasts are covering up events that are too weird for the extraterrestrial hypothesis. By page 10 we're deep into medieval reports of sky beings. From fairies to phantom dirigibles, from angels to the Mothman, Vallee makes the case for a universal phenomenon of contact by superior beings, whose physical form depends on culture.

John Keel - anything
Keel is more readable and less respectable than Vallee, and he comes to basically the same conclusion: that all the different kinds of sightings are part of the same big thing that we don't know how to think about. Keel's most famous and serious book is The Mothman Prophecies (1975). At the other extreme, his silliest and widest ranging is Disneyland of the Gods (1988). A good middle ground is The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings (1970/1994).

Ted Holiday - The Goblin Universe (1986)
A forgotten classic, left unfinished by Holiday and put together by Colin Wilson, whose introduction is a concise lesson in how to think about this stuff. Each chapter is on a different subject, and they vary widely in quality, but the general idea is that we live on an island of stability in a sea of weirdness. In a later chapter, Holiday and a priest attempt to exorcise the Loch Ness monster, which seemed to be correlated with some later sightings and Holiday's untimely death.

Barbara O'Brien - Operators and Things (1958)
The fascinating memoir of a high-functioning schizophrenic. This could be a Phil Dick novel but it really happened. The author wakes up to three ghostlike figures, who reveal to her the secret bureaucracy that runs the world. From the appendix:

A certain percentage of the population have minds so constructed that they can influence the mentality of others and dominate them. These individuals are known as operators and refer to the rest of the population as things. Upon these things they establish liens, chattels, and charters and so retain options over them.

She quits her job and goes on the run, bouncing around between competing clans of operators all fighting over her. The story is both comical and nightmarish, but the best thing about this book is what it reveals about the power of the subconscious. Her hallucinations frequently give her good advice, and the most interesting part is right after they disappear, where she gets strong and reliable help from subconscious urges, and writes a novel without even knowing what it says, only allowing her fingers to move on the typewriter.

Dora Van Gelder - The Real World of Fairies (1937/1977)
Much more benign than the above, and easily dismissed as whimsical fiction, this is a masterpiece of first person metaphysics. I don't think she's hallucinating, but seeing valid representations of the world behind this world, enough for a whole field guide to fairies, elementals, and angels. I wonder what would have happened if she had started her own tribe.

Social Philosophy
Morris Berman - The Reenchantment Of The World (1981)
Berman is a follower of Barfield, and this is a perfect starter book on the "disenchantment" narrative. It's hard to explain, to a modern person, what exactly has been lost from ways of thinking that we no longer understand. Another good crack at this subject is Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira. Berman goes strangely deeply into alchemy, and how alchemists were not trying to "create gold" in either a strictly physical or a strictly metaphorical sense. The chapter after that has my favorite bit, a series of portraits of Isaac Newton, looking increasingly villainous as he becomes more committed to mechanistic philosophy.

Ivan Illich - Tools for Conviviality (1973)
Ivan Illich was so smart, and wrote so clearly, that reading him is like looking at the sun. This was the first book of his that I read, and still my favorite, but all his stuff is thoughtful and fresh. It's mainly about the hidden social costs of progress, how new techologies make things better in obvious ways, while making things worse in subtle ways. Here's a good source of Ivan Illich writings online.

Fredy Perlman - Against His-story, Against Leviathan (1983)
In a very poetic style, Perlman goes through all of history arguing that the main driver of social change is citizens withdrawing support from the crappy systems they're living under. For example, the Spaniards were able to defeat the Incas so easily only because everyone was sick of the Incas. The conclusion is hopeful, and the whole text is online at the Anarchist Library and the Noble Savagery blog.

William Kötke - The Final Empire (1983)
From an Amazon review: "This is flat-out the best exposition of our socio-ecological troubles and a penetrating exploration of solutions as revealed in biology and indigenous populations who have adapted to achieve harmony in nature." Without even mentioning peak oil, Kötke carefully explains why civilization as we know it is doomed, and what to do about it. Here's a link to the whole text online.

David Graeber and David Wengrow - The Dawn Of Everything (2021)
There's lots of good stuff in this thick book, but the main idea is that prehistory was not an inevitable march to grain-growing empires, but that people were trying a lot of different things for a long time, including dense settlements with no sign of inequality or repression. The authors don't say it straight out, but they lay down all the pieces for this story: that the first cities were peaceful and egalitarian, until they were conquered by violent hill tribes, who merged their patriarchal culture with urban bureaucracy, and we've been there ever since.

John Livingston - Rogue Primate (1994)
All of these books have different answers to the question: where did humans go wrong? Livingston puts it farther back than anyone, at the taming of fire! He argues that once humans advertised their presence to predators, they had no choice but to become the most badass animal, and we soon developed a "prosthetic being" that makes even primitive humans exotic and disconnected. Here's a great summary of Livingston by Dan Bartlett.

Fringe Science
My favorite hard scientist is the astronomer Halton Arp. His books are Seeing Red and Quasars, Reshifts, and Controversies. Arp spent his career gathering evidence that cosmic redshifts are caused by something other than recession velocity -- which would cancel the expanding universe -- and that quasars are not extremely remote and bright, but are spat out of nearby galaxies like seeds. The astronomy establishment got so freaked out that they took away his telescope time, and for decades he kept going on the discarded evidence of his adversaries.

William Corliss was the heir to Charles Fort in that he collected anomalies from respected sources, and reprinted them in many books. They're all out of print, but you can browse them at Science Frontiers.

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who writes books of hypotheses that are empirical, but outside the bounds of present scientific models. Mostly he writes about different kinds of extraordinary perception, and explains them with ideas about non-local consciousness. His big idea is morphic resonance: that through some undiscovered process, organisms are routinely learning behaviors from members of the same species across time and space.

Wilhelm Reich is best known as a psychologist, but he was the most dangerous fringe scientist of the 20th century. He isolated living components of basic matter, which he called bions, developed physical tools to work with the esoteric energy he called orgone, and invented a weather modification device called the cloudbuster. For him, this stuff worked; since then, not so much. Again, the same thing happens in mainstream science, where strong early effects fade with more testing. Reich had more extreme results because he was a very talented scientist.

Another example is Royal Rife, who cured serious diseases with precise frequency generators. You can still buy a Rife generator, but the magic has worn off.

And Louis Kervran wrote a book, Biological Transmutations, in which his many experiments showed plants and animals transmuting chemical elements, which is impossible according to present science. This is the one I think is most likely to work, if someone else tries it.

Roger Zelazny
It's getting hard for me to find any fiction I enjoy more than just rereading Zelazny. In Philip K Dick, not knowing what's real is deeply troubling. In Zelazny, it's exciting! He turned Charles Fort's anything-goes metaphysics into an engine for adventure.

My favorite Zelazny novel is Roadmarks, in which a set of magical highways exist outside time, and if you can find them, you can drive to anywhere in history. The plot alternates between events in sequential time, and events that are outside of time and could be presented in any order. Supposedly he ordered them randomly. And it's hard to describe the social vibe, in which deadly conflicts and friendships frequently overlap. Another great book that does this is A Night In The Lonesome October.

His best known work is the Chronicles of Amber, and the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, establishes the basic metaphysics, which are revolutionary. To go from one world to another, you don't walk through a portal -- you simply go for a walk while observing differently, and the landscape gradually changes around you. For storytelling reasons, there is one true world, Amber, of which all other worlds are "shadows". But Amber itself not that interesting, just a routine high fantasy world. My personal metaphysics is Amber without Amber: shiftiness without any true world that's comprehensible.

Philip K. Dick
A reviewer once remarked that Dick had so many ideas that he would just scatter ideas in the margins that other authors would hang whole books on. People don't like his style but I love it. It's easy to read and nobody else writes that way. What I don't like are his mopey protagonists who always become heroic at the pivotal moment. I prefer strong heroes who at pivotal moments become empathic.

I've read about 30 of his novels. The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch is the strongest and scariest. Ubik is the most creative, and A Scanner Darkly, as he said himself, is both the saddest and the funniest. Also great are Dr. Bloodmoney, A Maze of Death, and a fun early novel, The Game Players Of Titan. The Man In The High Castle is his least weird novel, but has some good characters. His best character is probably Pris in We Can Build You. I wouldn't put Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in the top 20. And the Valis trilogy is not very good sci-fi, but goes into Dick's personal life and strange beliefs.

Gene Wolfe
Wolfe was a serious great author who raised the bar for science fiction. His best known work is the Book of the New Sun series, starting with The Shadow of the Torturer, which has incredible world building. The story is set so far in the future that you can dig a hole anywhere and find strange artifacts from forgotten civilizations. Medieval tech, super-advanced tech, and magic are all seamlessly mixed. The narrator is neither likeable nor reliable. One fan noticed that every time he boasts of his photographic memory, he immediately remembers something that is contradicted by something he says elsewhere.

Wolfe asked so much of readers that he surely left easter eggs that will never be discovered. I once met him at a book signing and asked why Agilus is still wearing a mask. He said, "I just write em, I don't explain em." Which is fair, but now nobody knows. My favorite less known Wolfe novel is Castleview, because it nails the vibe of real paranormal experience. But the ending makes no sense without deep knowledge of Arthurian myth. His short fiction is great too. "Against The Lafayette Escadrille" is my favorite short story by anyone.

Hitoshi Ashinano
His major work is a manga, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. Set hundreds of years after a climate catastrophe, it's full of beautiful art and beautiful slice-of-life stories, as humans and human-like robots enjoy the twilight of civilization. Writing teachers take note: fiction without conflict is not only possible, it's better, if you can pull it off. Another great work of peaceful postapocalypse is a novella, Engine Summer by John Crowley. And Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is not completely peaceful, but quite good.

other fiction
M.T. Anderson's Feed is a super-depressing novel in which the internet is beamed straight into everyone's head. It's like if Lars von Trier had made Idiocracy. Also it has a great first sentence: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

Orson Scott Card is not a good person, but I know three people including myself who have read Treason, and we all think it's his best novel. It's about a planet where a bunch of families were exiled, and over the centuries they all basically developed different super-powers. I wish there were sequels!

My favorite non-sci-fi novel is A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery. Here's my Goodreads review.