In the spirit of 4/20, we’ve rounded up a variety of reading recommendations from authors whose credentials include (but certainly aren’t limited to): Rolling Stone writer, history professor, botanist, pot psychologist, sex columnist, memoirist, short story writer, novelist, and a guy who recorded everything his dad said on Twitter and turned it into a #1 New York Times bestseller. Click through for their personal recommendations on reading material to compliment an “already confused and heightened state of mind,” or (warning!) keep you parked on a bus bench in front of Dairy Queen for two hours. If you’re especially susceptible to DQ marijuana time-warp scenarios, or if you don’t choose to observe this national holiday, there is suggested reading here that will allow you to experience “how awful it is to be high around cool people you don’t really know” without actually having to do so.
As many of the authors point out, smoking isn’t exactly conducive to reading, but there is no denying the lasting appeal of drug experiences — both as writing material and to individual book fiends, conjuring memories of reading on the porch for summer days without end and (failed) experimentation with The Anarchist Cookbook. If you have your own recommendations (or cautionary tales), or have ever tried to smoke the inside of a banana peel, we invite you, as always, to share in the comments.
Spring, 1989: John Ashbery’s poem “ Fragment .” That April a friend of mine (let’s call him Trimalchio) broke up with his girlfriend (let’s call her Petronia) and as a goodbye present she gave me this great big bag of weed, which she only did to make him mad, which worked, although Trimalchio ended up smoking much of it. I spent many hours that spring on the porch, in the sun or under the stars, listening to the Stylistics or the Jungle Brothers or Spacemen 3, reading poetry. Ashbery’s “Fragment,” from 1970, was a poem I already knew well and had read many times, but I thought I might pick up something new reading it through blurrier eyes. I did pick up something new, but then I do every time I read “Fragment.” Reading it took up a weekend in May, very pleasurably. Like the man said: “There was lots of time left, and we could always come back to it, and use it later.” The bag was finally emptied in the late summer of 1990, to the strains of the Jungle Brothers’ “Tribe Vibes.” Both “Fragment” and “Tribe Vibes” evoke that year for me. Thanks, Petronia. — Rob Sheffield
Candy by Terry Southern, Women by Charles Bukowski, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole, Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman , and The Anarchist Cookbook . Those are all in the spirit of the holiday though not specifically stoner literature. Candy puts 50 Shades of Grey to shame and is a miracle by an American visionary, a one-handed read that is also funny as hell. Women is completely subversive. A Confederacy of Dunces is a prior era’s Harold & Kumar. A brilliant hilarious character, many laugh-out-loud scenes, and a book whose pleasure is heightened by reading it stoned. When I was 15, The Anarchist Cookbook was how I learned to try to get high by scraping the inside of a banana peel, cooking it and smoking it. I didn’t get high and I had a lot of explaining to do when my mother saw the pan. — Amy Sohn
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Covering similar ground to one of Louis CK’s best stand-up routines, this superb recent debut includes a very funny account of how awful it is to be high around cool people you don’t really know. —Ned Beauman
I just finished Ben Lerner’s excellent Leaving the Atocha Station, a book that opens in the fog of a hash spliff and continues through various other kinds of disorienting and mind-numbing matter, including the kind of inscrutable poetry Lerner both writes and loves (I’m with him). The self-medicated narrator manages to suck you into his anesthetized POV, from which he can only seem to communicate by moving his eyebrows around. You could roll yourself a spliff and read this book, or you could just read the book and get a similar effect. But seriously, it’s very good. — Barbara Browning
The history of cannabis in America reaches pretty far back, although Slater’s famous monologue in Richard Linklater’s great 1993 movie Dazed and Confused is no more than a stoner’s fantasy. While George Washington (and Thomas Jefferson) certainly grew hemp on their Virginia plantations, there’s no evidence that they ever smoked it. Readers can sample several biographies of Washington. I’d recommend a book that focuses on one of the most famous images of Washington, and the real story behind it: David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing , which recounts Washington’s small but important victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late 1776 and early 1777. Although marijuana doesn’t make an appearance, Fischer does discuss intoxicating substances: he dispels the myth that the Hessian soldiers who lost the Battle of Trenton were drunk from Christmas revelry, and he notes that the Americans celebrated their victory with rum (against Washington’s wishes).
Speaking of hard liquor… I’ve recently been reading classic tales of hard-boiled detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Historians and detectives have a lot in common — they both analyze evidence in order to build a case and solve a problem. Early on in the Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely , Marlowe analyzes some marijuana cigarettes taken from the body of a dead client. Inside one of the cigarettes he finds the business card of a “psychic consultant.” The timing of the novel is significant — the state of California and the federal government had only recently begun passing and enforcing anti-marijuana legislation. “Lots of tough guys smoked marijuana,” Chandler writes, “also lots of band musicians and high school kids, and nice girls who had given up trying. American hasheesh. A weed that would grow anywhere. Unlawful to cultivate now. That meant a lot in a country as big as the USA.” — Benjamin Carp
Zach Plague, author of boring boring boring boring boring boring boring , recommends:
God Jr. by Dennis Cooper.A super-depressed dad can’t handle the guilt of the car crash that killed his teenage son. He retreats into a cloud of pot smoke, developing twin obsessions with building a monument to his son in the back yard, and playing his son’s video game. Cooper’s descriptions of walking around in the game, finding golden coins and not knowing what to do with them, and talking to strange creatures is hilarious, weird, and dead-on. Instead of being depressed, smoking pot, and playing video games, you could just read this novel and hit all three at once.
And The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball. A pamphleteer makes up memories for an amnesiac that may or may not be his girlfriend. Every 20 pages this novel turns into a completely different novel. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, or an MC Escher drawing, except cooler. Best part: you don’t really have to follow the plot, I guess. Just hang for one big twisty mystery, and enjoy the strange dark sentences that Jesse Ball spins. — Zach Plague
Tracie Egan Morrissey and Rich Juzwiak, authors of the forthcoming Pot Psychology’s How to Be: Lowbrow Advice from High People (a spin off the Jezebel video column), recommend:
The thing about getting stoned is that, if you’re doing it right, you get too stupid to read words. Or if you can actually read them, they sound weird and they don’t make sense. While that can be its own sort of inane form of entertainment, it can also prove to be a real chore. Stick to pictures. They’re worth a thousand words anyway. The brighter, busier and more colorful, the better. Hair Wars — which documents “fantasy hair styles” — is perfect because the portraits are at once realistic and unbelievable, which is the kind of mind-fuck that compliments your already confused and heightened state of mind. — Tracie Egan Morrissey and Rich Juzwiak
One of my all-time favorite poetry books is Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair , a collection of poetic sambas full of glorious phrase-making, mystery and magic, which positively throbs with sensuality. “I have gone marking the atlas of your body/with crosses of fire,” he tells his sweetheart. Or: “You have deep eyes in which the night flails.” Oh, my. He wrote this collection when he was only twenty years old, and it contains the unique spell of young love, wrapped in earthy images of the body and surrealist flights of heady imagining. — Diane Ackerman
Raymond Carver’s “What’s In Alaska?” is a stoner classic. And pot plays a small but crucial role in the title story of David Gates’s collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World . Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of Coleridge is maybe the best biography I’ve ever read. Now Coleridge was a lifelong opium addict and sometime drunk, so I guess it doesn’t really apply — on the other hand, a steady pot supply might have done him a world of good. Personally, I don’t endorse reading stoned, but if you were dead-set on attempting such a thing, you might try The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or some of the visionary fragments, though you might end up just freaking yourself out, though for all I know that’s the point. — Justin Taylor
Anne-Marie Kinney, author of the forthcoming Radio Iris , recommends:
Arthur Bradford’s 2001 short story collection Dogwalker has a certain lackadaisical weirdness that I think lends itself to the holiday. His stories frequently chronicle what could be read as stoner hijinks, from the discovery by a couple of ne’er-do-wells of a giant slug in an abandoned car’s glovebox to a sweet boy-meets-girl tale that begins with boy’s misguided attempt to carve girl’s initials into an apple with a chainsaw while it’s in her mouth. The stories get way loopier than that (the guy who accidentally has sex with his girlfriend’s dog, for instance), but the offbeat collection is held together throughout by Bradford’s guileless voice and clear-as-blue-sky prose. — Anne-Marie Kinney
Rupinder Gill, author of the forthcoming On the Outside Looking Indian , recommends:
From what I understand from movies, bong store ads and the poetry of Snoop Dogg, pot makes everything uproariously funny. Whenever I want to, as the kids say, “LOL,” I pick up my copy of What I’d Say to the Martians by Jack Handey. It remains one of the best humor books on the market but unfortunately once everyone has read it, it will become harder for me to re-type pieces from it and hand them in as my own. — Rupinder Gill
Nicholas Money, author of Mushroom and Professor of Botany at Miami University (Ohio), recommends:
This is a difficult charge for a wine aficionado for whom pot is a distant memory of misspent lunchtimes in high school in the 1970s. Music obtained new depths, but I’m not convinced that THC enhanced contemplation of the written word. With this ancient familiarity, I offer the following thought experiment. I’m a biology professor and have been reading Darwin’s Origin with graduate students this semester: there are fourteen chapters in the first edition of 1859; we discuss one chapter every Monday evening and will end with a party on week 15. Our close reading and sharing of the book has been enthralling. The familiar has become fresh and more beautiful than I remembered. This wondrous book on the meaning and mechanism of life isn’t an easy read, but Darwin’s sense of awe in nature, and in his discovery, is evident in brief passages of marvelous poetry. How does The Origin work when mellowed with weed? Chapter 14 is the “Recapitulation and Conclusion” that ends with the famous sentence beginning, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” This would be a good choice for contemplation. A companion viewing of Haeckel’s illustrations of radiolarians in an online gallery might enhance the festivities. — Nicholas Money
Leigh Stein, author of The Fallback Plan , recommends:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. For a melancholy stoner, look here. “Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph,” the narrator tells us early on, and who hasn’t been there? Getting stoned and listening to music is more than just an escape for the protagonist: it’s a representation of his invisibility. “I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’ — all at the same time…. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind.'”
And Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Didion’s title essay is a catalogue of drug use in San Francisco in the late ’60s, but what makes it so remarkable is how little editorializing there is. In short vignettes, she lets the people she meets speak for themselves. “Juveniles and narcotics, those are your major problems,” a cop tells her. “I found love on acid,” someone says. “But I lost it. And now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.” The line between the “juveniles” and the adults is pretty hazy, and Didion even meets a stoned five-year-old, just one among many in her kindergarten. — Leigh Stein
Dylan Hicks, author of the forthcoming Boarded Windows , recommends:
I’ll say this about marijuana: I miss it. But one of the reasons I quit was that, as I required more and more of it nightly, my reading, unsurprisingly, became increasingly restless and scatterbrained, my interpretations falsely insightful or plainly backwards. I believe I was very stoned when, for instance, I discovered how deeply indebted Rimbaud was to the lyrics of Led Zeppelin. When really high, it was usually impossible for me to keep track of a plot, say, so I’d sometimes browse comic novels I’d already read — maybe Don Quixote or Infinite Jest — or fuzzily skim poetry, often by nineteenth-century Frenchmen. Coleridge is also good; that “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” seemed particularly suited to Minneapolis apartments. Probably more than anything, though, I turned to LP jackets. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz is an ideal specimen: a gatefold sleeve for rolling the joint, liner notes by the great Martin Williams, a Pollock painting for endless staring, and gnomic Ornette quotes such as, “Let’s try to play the music and not the background,” which, even when sober, sound like words to live by. — Dylan Hicks
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup , recommends:
I recommend Pot Farm by Matthew Gavin Frank. The title says it all, really, and what better way to honor the spirit of the holiday than to read these ribald musings of acid-battered agrarian life and the demands of growing California’s largest cash crop. — Mark Haskell Smith
Kathleen Alcott, author of the forthcoming The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets , recommends:
I gave up pot around the time I could legally vote, but I still remember fondly the moments (and joints) passed between friends and lovers on the beaches of Northern California, where I grew up; I’d often lay back by the bonfire and turn my cloudy mind towards literature. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s collection of short stories, Strange Pilgrims (much undervalued, in my opinion), features an ecstatic parade of impossible images and sweet meanderings that go hand-in-hand with the dreaminess of the drug, the THC-induced willingness to sit in a small corner of the universe. In “Light is Like Water,” two brothers drown in a sea of light composed of furniture and household minutiae frozen mid-air; “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” includes the protagonist’s quiet admirations of the impeccable woman who sleeps next to him at 30,000 feet, his deep happiness to simply guard her while she lays there unconscious. — Kathleen Alcott
Jenny Jones, author of the forthcoming The Big Lewbowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time , recommends:
The great American fairy tale The Wonderful of Oz by L. Frank Baum has all the incumbent ingredients: a fantastical world comprised of technicolor countries and populated by extraordinary creatures; a light and humorous surface with dark undertones; sparkly footwear; and the obvious drug reference of the Deadly Poppy Field. The lavish illustrations by W. W. Denslow whimsically flesh out this epic adventure that borders on hallucination. — Jenny Jones
Harry Crews often said that it was the writer’s job to “get naked,” strip away all the bullshit, and address the truth directly. He was a master at illuminating beauty through the excavation of ugliness and horror. His sense of humor was wicked and sharp yet there is great empathy in all of his work. He wrote 17 novels, a memoir, and countless essays. I learned something from every single one of his books but it is A Feast of Snakes that made me want to be a writer. Whether you are high or low, this novel will speak to you. I guarantee it.
Harry Crews died on March 28, 2012. His death is a great loss for readers and writers alike. I propose that at 4:20pm today, no matter where you are in the world, you drop what you’re doing and remember this great man. He was one of my heroes. May he rest in peace. — Katie Arnoldi
Blood Meridian , for sure. Basically every thirty pages one of the two following things happen: either the character of “The Judge” has a monologue where he opines on the nature of humanity or there’s an incredibly graphic display of violence. When you’re high, both those things cause your super baked brain to go in to overdrive and say stuff like, “I have to take, like, a walk or something.” Then two hours later you realize you’ve just been sitting in front of a Dairy Queen on a bus bench for longer than you can remember. — Justin Halpern