Fact-Checking ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’

[William] Powell quit his job and began writing for up to ten hours a day. Despite the title, there is nothing about anarchism as a political theory in the book, which focuses on drugs, surveillance, weapons, and explosives. About drugs, Powell knew plenty. He had overcome a speed habit, smoked lots of pot, consumed his fair share of LSD, and seen lives destroyed by heroin. What he didn’t know he borrowed from underground publications like the Berkeley Barb, passing on tips that hadn’t been fact-checked. As it turns out, one cannot get high by eating banana peels that have been boiled and baked, or smoking crushed peanut shells. (Powell was right, however, about nutmeg’s hallucinogenic potential.) Nor had the city’s sewer system been taken over by “New York white,” the giant marijuana plants said to be the result of people flushing seeds to avoid arrest. “The sewer plants usually reach a height of between 12 and 15 feet and are bleached white because of the lack of sunlight,” Powell wrote, in the authoritative voice that permeates the book.

He researched the other sections at the main branch of the New York Public Library, flipping through the card catalogue and returning with books such as the U.S. Army Field Manual for Physical Safety and Homemade Bombs and Explosives. He holed up in the building for months, reading about wristlocks and tear gas and nitroglycerine. Most of the book is a cut-and-paste creation; when Powell’s voice does emerge beneath the technical-manual speak, it’s usually in the form of a cocky young man trying to sound streetwise beyond his years. About explosives, he wrote: “This chapter is going to kill and maim more people than all the rest put together, because people just refuse to take things seriously.”

Gabriel Thompson, writing in Harper’s about The Anarchist Cookbook and it’s author, William Powell. The book was published in 1971 when Powell was an angry and disaffected nineteen-year-old; today, he is a sixty-five-year-old grandfather. Powell has spent much of the last four decades fighting to take the book out of print. For further reading, check out Powell’s 2013 op-ed on the topic, which ran in The Guardian.

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