Enthralling Books: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark


The book that most enthralled me — or at least first enthralled me on the level you're talking about — was Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was in college, on my way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to direct my friend Walter Kirn's play "Soft White Kids in Leather," loosely based on Warhol's Factory. Although I had read up on a lot of the New York scene of that era, it wasn't until I found Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (in the mass-market paperback edition in one of those used book bins) that I realized I had finally found someone who could not only express the experience of the group trip, but could also articulate the dynamics and ideology of the psychedelic commune. (Yes, Kesey and the Dead were the West Coast, tie-dyed counterpart to the black turtleneck culture of Warhol and Leary. But the sense of commitment to higher ideals and convenient forgetting of more day-to-day ethics were common to both scenes.)

Anyway, once I started this one I couldn't stop. This was back when taking a trip to Europe was still a really really big thing, so I had planned to travel from Italy to England to Scotland over a slow week of touring before starting rehearsals in Edinburgh. But I spent most of my time in hotel rooms and cafes just reading this book. Twice.

I don't think anything Wolfe has written really comes close, except maybe some of the essays. The book was my model for Cyberia – a similar foray into a psychedelic culture, where some fictionalizing was required to convey deeper non-fiction truths. I hope there's another psychedelic renaissance of this magnitude in my lifetime, just so I have the chance to write or even just read about it one more time.