Author Michael Pollan didn't think his book on psychedelics would be so popular

Author Michael Pollan didn't think his book on psychedelics would be so popular

VicesJune 07, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Just like in sports and in horse racing, books can pull off surprise upsets.

Lanky and fashionably bald, Michael Pollan sits in a loveseat in the back of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colorado, waiting to speak to a sold-out audience — with the smile of someone who just won the Kentucky Derby on long odds.

Pollan usually writes about food, with bestsellers like "Food Rules, In Defence of Food," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma." He's practically Mr. Healthy Eating. But his new book is on a much weirder, much more controversial topic.

"When we decided to do a book on psychedelics, my publisher and I, we had no idea whether people who weren't in the psychedelic community, which is very small, would want to buy a book on the topic," Pollan tells Rooster Magazine.

No big-name author had tackled the recent renaissance in psychedelics on drugs like LSD and psilocybin. These are drugs which may be helpful, but tend to still stay hidden in the back of the closet like that jar of magic mushrooms your hippie college friend gave you and then vanished.

But Pollan's new book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Tells Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence," exceeded expectations — by far, he says. Of all the nonfiction books that surround him — by Oprah and Barack Obama and Jordan Peterson — none was selling better than his, reaching number one on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. 

"I was completely surprised ... ," Pollan says, shaking his head, "... it would do so well."

Talk about psychedelics, and you often get a snicker or a giggle. But not only is Pollan's book blowing up, he's been invited everywhere to promote it from Stephen Colbert to most of the major networks to speaking with Terry Gross on NPR. And interviewers and reviewers, far from freaking out and calling him a dangerous hippie, have gushed.

[Pollan's new book.]

"The fact that the first adaptation came out in the Wall Street Journal may have been a signal to the rest of the media that this isn't a crazy left-wing subject," Pollan says. Plus, many older writers are products of the '60s, Pollan says, and they "had experiences in college that were actually quite meaningful to them, and they never forgot it."

Some very uptight corners of the culture responded positively, including the Republican-leaning Weekly Standard, the American Conservative and prominent conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who says he loves LSD and says "we should say yes to drugs." 

For those of you who have spent decades hiding magic mushrooms in the closet, or maybe even going to jail for LSD, this positive response from Republicans can make you feel wobbly. But the praise for Pollan's book shows that the oldest, crustiest Drug Warriors are mostly dying off. As this country does more psychedelics and marijuana than at any time since the '60s, America is changing its mind about drugs.

[Pollan speaks to a standing-room-only audience in Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore, one a series of sold-out talks for his book about psychedelics. Photo by Reilly Capps]

Pollan's own story is a good illustration of this sea change. He's too young for the '60s; 12 years old during the Summer of Love. And after he was told in middle school that LSD rearranged your chromosomes (not true), Pollan worried a bad acid trip might land him in the looney bin.

But around 2010, comfortable in middle-age, psychedelics floated into Pollan's world as something besides a wrecking ball for your body. Something cool. Pollan met respectable folks at dinner parties his age who were doing LSD, and he read about scientific studies at top-notch universities about psilocybin curing cancer patients' fears of death.

So, three years ago, Pollan wrote an article called "The Trip Treatment" in the New Yorker, a magazine so uptight it tucks its shirt into its underpants, metaphorically speaking. Pollan quoted Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is close to legalizing therapy with MDMA (ecstasy) saying, "I think we're ready [for] psychedelics."

Back in 2015, Pollan had his doubts about Doblin's enthusiasm. "Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them," Pollan wrote. 

But Pollan kept an open mind. And he decided he'd barely scratched the surface of psychedelics, and so he set out to write this book. As he did, society and institutions — far from being disrupted by psychedelics — kept embracing them. Tests of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy) as medicines continued. And by 2017, after a 3,000 person MAPS conference called Psychedelic Science, Pollan's skepticism was fading, and he told Doblin so. "The path looks a lot clearer than it did just a year or two ago," Pollan wrote to Doblin.

And, hearing stories of life-changing psychedelic sessions, Pollan got jealous, and bought his own ticket for a half-dozen psychedelic trips, on LSD, psilocybin, 5-meo-DMT and ayahuasca. 

Writing about tripping was one of the biggest literary challenges of his life. Psychedelics are strange, and describing them is like a caveman trying to explain Times Square.

But with his trips as the centerpiece, and bracketed by deep reporting on the history and science of the drugs, Pollans weaves fMRIs with spiritual conjecture, interviews with mystics and establishment doctors, and Pollan's book ends up being the best — perhaps ever — at translating psychedelics into plain English. There's scant mention of "machine elves" or "the eschaton" or "heroic doses," phrases that mean everything to psychonauts but which, to schoolteachers and prison wardens and pastors, might as well be Chinese. His bare outline is that these drugs may not be for everyone. They won't solve all problems. But they are valuable tools that can help people find happiness, spirituality, calm and purpose.

The book gives you psychedelics as they are, not as the poisons haters demonize them to be, and not as the miracles evangelists promise. It's the book to give your wife or husband who won't trip with you, or to the grandma who stopped giving you Christmas presents after your LSD arrest. 

Pollan's books on food changed the way a lot of people eat, convincing them to grow their own vegetables and reject pesticides and herbicides. Some part of the organic food movement can be traced to his books.

That influence is migrating over to psychedelics. At a book reading at Google in Seattle, a woman told Pollan: "Because of your books on food, I had to learn how to slaughter a pig and butcher it. It occured to me as I was driving to work that now I have to do LSD."

Along with being Mr. Healthy Eating, could Pollan be Mr. Psychedelics, too? Could Pollan persuade folks to farm their own ayahuasca, go local on their magic mushrooms and raise their hallucinogenic toads free range?

"I don't think that's in my future," Pollan says, laughing. "Those of you who have been working on this longer than I know that I'm a newcomer. I haven't mastered this subject yet."

But, in fact, Pollan is getting thrust into the role. At recent event in Boston, Pollan says, an audience member referred to him as "the de facto leader of the psychedelic movement."

Pollan swears that's not who he's going to be. But Pollan's psychedelic ride isn't over; he's in talks for a movie version of the book. And as his book hangs near the top of the best seller list, Pollan is Mr. Psychedelics, whether he wants to be or not — and he might continue to be until Oprah or Barack Obama or Jordan Peterson loads up their bongs with DMT and finds a better way to tell the story of psychedelics to folks who have never heard it before.

[cover photo Jeannette Montgomery Barron, illustration Rooster Magazine]