These Mind-Altering Books Make Reading A Visceral, Transformative Experience

Occasionally, after reading a specific kind of book I’ll experience an amazing phenomenon. Sometimes it occurs only after finishing the book, whereas other times it happens any time I set the book down. The exact feeling is hard to describe, but if you’ve felt it before than you know.

If reading a normal book adds some quantifiable little bit of creativity or knowledge to your psyche, then reading these books adds a sort of mental filter. For instance, when water seeps through the ground, the unique compositions of different soil layers filter the liquid, removing specific impurities in each level. The more layers, the purer the water.

Reading these mind-altering novels adds another layer of this mental soil, more thoroughly filtering reality. The water becomes purer and more vivid as experiences become more focused. The sieve doesn’t enhance intelligence or more literacy per se, but affects perception. The resulting feeling is an altered state of mind, almost a high. Most often this dreamlike reality lasts only a short while. The memory of experiencing the feeling, however, survives.

Encountering books that produce these effects is uncommon, and so I vividly remember the first time it happened. I had to read Alice in Wonderland before my first day of college, but I had very little money or time. I went to Book People in Austin and read the entire book in one sitting. The potency of the fantastic content, in combination with the prolonged exposure, resulted in a sort of psychic overdose. My mind tripped and shorted, and I felt a buzzy high. I walked around the city until I came down, but I never forgot the feeling.

I keep a lot of lists on my phone, one of which is titled “Mind-Altering Novels.” The states of mind that they create are all different and many are not necessarily positive. The books induce these feelings through two means—style and content. The most potent books use both methods at a high level, such as Blood Meridian and Alice in Wonderland.

Others draw their mind-expanding abilities from primarily one or the other. The Diary of Anne Frank works mostly from its content, whereas Everything is Illuminated and “Bluets” rely on their form. Style and content are not two opposite ends of a spectrum on which these books occupy some position, but rather are like two different colors being combined in differing amounts.


Alice in Wonderland

Charles Dodgson, pseudonym Lewis Carroll, wrote very few normal tracts of literature. Alice and Wonderland has surreal imagery and whimsical prose, allowing the dialogue and setting of the book to work in tandem, creating the sensation of an alarmingly real dream. Following Alice, he wrote Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, an equally psychedelic book that has an even darker bent than its predecessor. In it, he created a character called the “Red Queen” who famously said, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” a phenomenon known as Red Queen Effect. Other notable characters: The Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, all of whom have come to symbolize psychedelia to some extent. Although a children’s book on its face, Alice in Wonderland has much darker themes lurking below the surface.

Everything is Illuminated

In classic Jonathan Safran Foer style, Everything is Illuminated strives for unconventionality. Foer fashions himself an artist who writes books, which explains his unconventional style and genre-bending tendencies. Illuminated describes Foer’s attempt to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family village in Poland. The book’s syntax, interweaving storylines and undercurrents of magical realism produce a complex novel. One of two books on the list dealing with the Holocaust, the content of the book can seem almost emotionally manipulative at times, a trait I feel to be characteristic of Foer’s. In this book as well as his more popular Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer uses sensitive, attention-grabbing. In both books I find he writes so capably that the content is a superfluous buoy, but Foer has received criticism for relying on it. Everything is unlike any book you’ve read before and will leave you profoundly impressed and influenced once you have finished. Sidebar: do not watch the movie.


On the Road

A controversial book, On the Road comes off in one of two ways to people. First, a stylistically unmatched tale of swashbuckling, youthful abandon set in the pursuit of self-identification in a rapidly changing American landscape; or second, a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing story rife with misogyny, self-destruction and abdication of social responsibility. The beauty of the book is that it is fully neither. It deserves to be read for its importance in the American canon, and then readers may make of it what they will. The background of the book, including Kerouac’s troubled life, the short-lived ascendency of the Beats and Kerouac’s drug-fueled three week writing binge all enhance the legend. This book has changed a lot of people’s lives and is guaranteed to leave readers feeling passionate one way or another after finishing it.


Blood Meridian

            A book that makes aspiring authors want to give up, Blood Meridian is one of the most artfully written books in American literature and one of the best of the 20th century. The book reads like 327 pages of desert poetry, and the omission of quotation marks, beautifully archaic language and lack of apostrophes makes it unparalleled in modern literature. The plot commands its own attention for its astounding violence, primordial characters and mythical gravitas.

pales in comparison only to the Judge making gunpowder on the side of a volcano using bat guano and urine. The book seems to stimulate the same neural pathways as a religious text, leaving the reader feeling small, mystified and afraid.




The Beautiful and the Damned

            Though critics pan the novel, The Beautiful and the Damned is my favorite Fitzgerald work because of the acute physical response I get from reading it. The plot follows a young man named Anthony Patch. He comes from money and is waiting for his grandfather to die in order to inherit more money. Patch is a deplorable, lazy and entitled character who gradually slips into alcoholism and brings his wife down with him. For all the plot critique, Fitzgerald’s ability to create scenes that leave readers with knots in their stomachs is inimitable. Rarely does writing effect such a tangible physical response in readers, and each of the three times I’ve read the book I’ve found myself physically connected to Patch’s misfortune. The Spanish phrase “pena ajena” describes shame experienced on behalf of another person, and serves aptly as the motif of the book.


The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson, a personal hero of mine, has not written a book I dislike. The Rum Diary tells the story of life in lawless San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the 1950s. Thompson writes for an American newspaper that’s crumbling around him, and drinking, sex and lazy afternoons at the beach pepper the book, in addition to bullish hotheaded antics. Not overly profound in any way, the novel makes the list because its mere mention mentally transports readers to a carefree beach in the Caribbean, complete with rum and ice. The Rum Diary leaves the reader feeling content and relaxed, a mentality less common and more important than most.


The Yellow Wallpaper

Charotte Gilman’s novel proves that if good things come in small packages, so do bad things. Her fifteen-page short story relates in quick fashion a dark, disturbing tale of psychosis and misogyny. The final pages floor unsuspecting readers, requiring they rescan the last scene several times to fully understand what happened: and then incredulous, raised eyebrow faces will look up from the book with pure shock in their eyes. Very few books summarize the plight of female oppression so well, and none do it so succinctly. The book makes a disproportionately huge dent in the readers’ psyche, leaving a mental mark bearing witness to the story’s theme.



            I hesitated to include this book because poetry seems like it should be a separate category. Many books of poetry have impacted me—at a much higher percentage than novels—but “Bluets” did so with particular style. Eschewing a book of poems, Maggie Nelson writes a lyrical story about the color blue. Throughout the work she litters facts and quotes, occasionally interweaving excerpts of her own life. The reader finds the narrator depressed, and the symbolism of the color comes to represent her attempt to reason and feel her way through her depression. Foremost, Nelson writes an incredibly entertaining book, appealing even to non-poetry readers. Additionally, her exploration of the color blue makes it impossible to look at colors—any of them—in the same light again, and that’s the legacy the book leaves readers with: the lingering symbolism of everyday objects.



Most comparable on this list to McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges writes so intelligently that many readers fail to appreciate the astounding plots his words create. Unlike McCarthy, the themes of Borges’ short stories flirt with disturbing ideas but rarely embrace them. To the reader, it seems as if Borges starts with a fantastical idea—a boy who remembers everything—and then creates a story around the theme. His writing is a concert in meticulous detail and precise language, complimenting the intellectual nature of the hypotheticals he explores. One of the most talented writers and accomplished magical realists to have written, Borges reads like dark chocolate for the mind. Many of the themes of his stories stay in readers’ heads for years, rattling around and occasionally falling out in the right conversations. One good story from Borges and your brain will never be fully satisfied with its limited reality again.