I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams


Mark Dery

A head-spinning thrill ride through contemporary American culture

From the cultural critic Wired called “provocative and cuttingly humorous” comes a viciously funny, joltingly insightful collection of drive-by critiques of contemporary America where chaos is the new normal. Exploring the darkest corners of the national psyche and the nethermost regions of the self, Dery makes sense of the cultural dynamics of the American madhouse early in the twenty-first century.

Mark Dery’s cultural criticism is the stuff that nightmares are made of. He’s a witty and brilliant tour guide on an intellectual journey through our darkest desires and strangest inclinations. You can’t look away even if you want to.

Mark Frauenfelder and David Pescovitz, Boing Boing

From the cultural critic Wired called “provocative and cuttingly humorous” comes a viciously funny, joltingly insightful collection of drive-by critiques of contemporary America where chaos is the new normal. Exploring the darkest corners of the national psyche and the nethermost regions of the self—the gothic, the grotesque, and the carnivalesque—Mark Dery makes sense of the cultural dynamics of the American madhouse early in the twenty-first century.

Here are essays on the pornographic fantasies of Star Trek fans, Facebook as Limbo of the Lost, George W. Bush’s fear of his inner queer, the theme-parking of the Holocaust, the homoerotic subtext of the Super Bowl, the hidden agendas of IQ tests, Santa’s secret kinship with Satan, the sadism of dentists, Hitler’s afterlife on YouTube, the sexual identity of 2001’s HAL, the suicide note considered as a literary genre, the surrealist poetry of robot spam, the zombie apocalypse, Lady Gaga, the Church of Euthanasia, toy guns in the dream lives of American boys, and the polymorphous perversity of Madonna’s big toe.

Dery casts a critical eye on the accepted order of things, boldly crossing into the intellectual no-fly zones demarcated by cultural warriors on both sides of America’s ideological divide: controversy-phobic corporate media, blinkered academic elites, and middlebrow tastemakers. Intellectually omnivorous and promiscuously interdisciplinary, Dery’s writing is a generalist’s guilty pleasure in an age of nanospecialization and niche marketing. From Menckenesque polemics on American society and deft deconstructions of pop culture to unflinching personal essays in which Dery turns his scalpel-sharp wit on himself, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a head-spinning intellectual ride through American dreams and American nightmares.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He is best known for his writings on the politics of popular culture in books such as The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Flame Wars, and Culture Jamming. He has been a professor of journalism at New York University, a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Irvine, and a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. www.markdery.com.

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author whose novels include Distraction, Zeitgeist, Holy Fire, and The Caryatids.

Mark Dery’s cultural criticism is the stuff that nightmares are made of. He’s a witty and brilliant tour guide on an intellectual journey through our darkest desires and strangest inclinations. You can’t look away even if you want to.

Mark Frauenfelder and David Pescovitz, Boing Boing

Mark Dery is gifted with sanity, humor, learning, and a prose style as keen as a barber’s razor. He applies those qualities to a trustworthy and entertaining analysis of the lunatic fringe, which constitutes an ever-larger portion of the discourse in America today.

Luc Sante

Do not turn squeamish from the many considerations of death that lurk within—vampires, tombs, disease, corruption of many varieties. Mark Dery’s restless and stylish essay is concerned with one thing only—what it means to be alive in America.

Richard Rodriguez, author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America

The bebop rhythms of Mark Dery’s prose reflect an intellectual excitement that is rare among contemporary cultural essayists. Reading him is like ingesting a powerful jolt of espresso.

Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars

More relevant than Mythologies, funnier than Travels in Hyperreality, more readable than Simulacra, less gloomy than Living in the End Times, smarter than Hitchens and without the pomposity, Dery’s dazzling collection will, I unhesitatingly predict, become a classic of cultural criticism.

Words, Noises and Other Stuff

We get delicious slivers of personal anecdote and some mind-blowing facts. Did you know a decapitated head maintains consciousness for 13 seconds? What do you suppose those last 13 seconds are like? Dery has considered these matters, studied the literature, the art and science and history of the subject and he presents it all with razor sharp wit.

Notes for Headstones

What makes Dery such an appealing tour guide through all these bad thoughts of his is that he's right there with us, trying to answer the tough questions, and willing to turn his probing mind and eye on himself, too.

Phoenix New Times

Mark Dery is an intellectually challenging writer. He makes few concessions to his readers. He has high expectations . . . He is witty. He is amusing. He is stimulating. The essays will force you to examine ideas you more than likely have never thought about before.


Always provocative, often humorous, Dery has a keen eye for absurdity, tragedy, and everything in between.

Publishers Weekly

How is it that Dery is able to produce this uncanny feeling of identification? You get the sense that, while the rest of us were living the zeitgeist, Dery was holding a stethoscope to its heart.


At his best, Dery cuts through the bewildering data fog we live in like no one else. These disarmingly frank and funny personal essays function as a welcome reminder that this prodigious brain we’re encountering does, in fact, come in the body of a human man. His whole purpose is to make us work a little harder, to shake us out of the torpor that blinds us to the subtext of our own lives. It’s true that watching his hypertrophied intelligence run frenetic circles around your own can sometimes be as exhausting as it is exhilarating, but his work rewards the effort.

The Brooklyn Rail

The same laser-focused interrogation and machete-sharp wit that made Dery’s earlier books critical touchstones is here in rapid-fire form. Where his earlier work honed in on one subject or one genre of subjects, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is all over the place, a sniper-perch on the cultural sprawl where no one and nothing is safe. There are too many stand-out, entrails-examining moments to name... No matter the topic, no one puts together a sentence like Mark Dery.

Roy Christopher

Mark Dery has just published I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, a long-awaited compendium of his oft-brutal, usually funny, and always-brilliant writings on the curious, bizarre, and downright dark crevices of our culture. Look no further than this new book for your next monstrous dose of Dery.

Boing Boing

Whether you're starting your spring break or just slacking off work for another week, there's no better way to wile away your idle hours than reading through Mark Dery's new collection of essays I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.


Mark Dery is a forward-thinking-and-looking writer who puts many of the more insane aspects of contemporary life under a magnifying glass and dissects them with fearsome insight and intellect. Dery is an excellent writer, approaching his subject matter with a wry, sometimes uproarious spiketop sense of humor which helps to leaven some of his more serious discussions.

3:AM Magazine

A critical thinker whose razor sharp attacks on American idiocracy are always leavened by dry humor, colorful but precise language and an amused dissection of human perversity. In a better country, Dery would be widely recognized as one of our premier essayists.


These off-kilter essays don’t take themselves too seriously but shine an entertaining and sometimes insightful light on the corners of pop culture.

Zócalo Public Square

Willing to tackle some tough and controversial subject matter—the Holocaust ‘industry’, for example—and examine it with rigor and willingness to upset conventional or comfortable opinion and piety.


It’s a dazzling performance, with Dery compulsively trawling the garbagestrewn shorelines of the U.S. to examine its dark and rancid center: the homosexual panic behind the Super Bowl and George Bush’s cowboy pronouncements . . . He writes in a breathless and witty style, engagingly full of glib word play.

David Lida, Mostly New Mexico City

This is a classy collection—cool, quick and quite often simply hilarious.

Rick McGrath

Dery has made an art form of the short, punchy and polemical screed. Dery is clearly the 21st century’s most compelling and readable polymath of the perverse.

21C Magazine

Writing from his own border, Dery’s essays are similarly bracing, sometimes infuriating, and (warning) may become a habit-forming guilty pleasure.

Newcity Lit

Mark Dery is a great essayist, maybe even a world-class one. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, a collection of pieces written in the past decade or so for a variety of print and online publications, is a visceral reminder of this.

Las Vegas CityLife

This accumulated collection provides an outlet for an unbounded mind, and for a first-rank thinker, who has obviously spent a lot of time in front of the printed word. There is much to learn about style and substance within the covers of a Mark Dery book.

Staten Island Bob

Cultural critic Mark Dery is something of a Tom Wolfe for the BoingBoing set, writing cranky and sneering essays about sensationalistic or offbeat subjects, compensating for the narrow range of conclusions these topics tend to offer with rhetorical excess and a thick smear of knowing pop-culture allusions.

The New Inquiry

No critic delves into the dark recesses of American consciousness quite like Dery. And perhaps at no time in recent history has national disillusionment been so primed for such critique.

The Verge

Dery invokes Hunter S Thompson, but not as a prankster - rather as a stylist and satirist, in a tradition that runs from Swift through Twain and implicitly on to Dery himself.

The Word

An absolute treasure trove of the disturbing and enlightening.

Warren Ellis

[Dery’s] thought processes are clear and firmly expressed, his opinions on anything from politics to sexuality to music neither blared in your face, nor in any way concealed – the man who wrote this book is in it, dancing between the lines.

Books and Bad Habits

Dery’s dark you-can’t-think-this-stuff-up carnival tour of present-day America is far more thought-provoking than anything virtual reality can offer.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Dery’s book approaches the wicked wit and imagination of his heroes Ballard and Mencken, and is a provocative cultural document of America in the precarious 21st century. For a diagnostician of the national nervous breakdown, he’s damn funny.

The Journal

The essays are first-rate, written with sharp-wittedness and elegance.

Time’s Flow Stemmed, blog

Absolutely essential reading for those not yet familiar with the anarcho-nerd

Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

A collection of essays that fizz with ideas and neologisms (”sacrymose sentimentality”) and takes pot-shots at the sacred cows of the left, right and centre. . . All recounted with a rollicking sense of humour.

Fortean Times

His writing is such a swift punch to the gut that you’re left not only gasping, but realizing that you’ll have to spend much more time processing his argument. He’s a smart, culture-obsessed writer, but the essays in this new collection are hard to stop reading because Dery accomplishes something so many modern commentators fail at: he keeps it interesting.


Each of the essays, which explore topics relevant to nearly all Americans, is an unforeseen assault on a way of thinking and living in America. Then, as soon as the mind stops reeling from the first battering, the essay has ended and a new attack waits in the next. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts will expose a side of American Culture many choose not to gaze upon, but leaves readers feeling as though afterwards they are more in tune with the world.

Journal of American Culture


Foreword: I Must Not Read Bad Thoughts Bruce Sterling


Part I. American Magic, American Dread
Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?

Gun Play: An American Tragedy in Three Acts

Mysterious Stranger: Grandpa Twain’s Dark Side

Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back: On Lady Gaga

Jocko Homo: How Gay Is the Super Bowl?

Wimps, Wussies, and W.: Masculinity, American Style

Stardust Memories: How David Bowie Killed the ’60s and Ushered in the ’70s and, for
One Brief Shining Moment, Made the Mullet Hip

When Animals Attack! An Aesop’s Fable about Anthropomorphism

Toe Fou: How I Was Subliminally Seduced by Madonna’s Big Toe

Shoah Business

The Triumph of the Shill: Fascist Branding

Endtime for Hitler: On the Downfall Parodies and the Inglorious Return of Der Führer

Part II. Myths of the Near Future: Making Sense of the Digital Age
World Wide Wonder Closet: On Blogging

(Face)Book of the Dead

Straight, Gay, or Binary? HAL Comes out of the Cybernetic Closet

Word Salad Surgery: Spam, Deconstructed

Slashing the Borg: Resistance Is Fertile

Things to Come: Xtreme Kink and the Future of Porn

Part III. Tripe Soup for the Soul: Religion and All Its Works and Ways
Tripe Soup for the Soul: The Daily Affirmation

Pontification: On the Death of the Pope

The Prophet Margin: Jack Chick’s Comic-Book Apocalypse

2012: Carnival of Bunkum

The Vast Santanic Conspiracy

Part IV. Anatomy Lesson: The Grotesque, the Gothic, and Other Dark Matters
Open Wide: Dental Horror

Gray Matter: The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head

Been There, Pierced That: Apocalypse Culture and the Escalation of Subcultural

Death to All Humans! The Church of Euthanasia’s Modest Proposal

Great Caesar’s Ghost: On the Crypt of the Capuchins

Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: On La Specola’s Anatomical Venuses

Goodbye, Cruel Words: On the Suicide Note as a Literary Genre

Cortex Envy: Bringing Up Baby Einstein

Publication History

UMP blog - Happiness, death, and a few of his favorite (and most loathed) things: Dery does the Proust Questionnaire

What is your idea of earthly happiness?
All the time in the world, all the books in the world, the creditors banished forever from my mailbox, the time clock stopped for all time, a pool of light falling poetically across the comforter, a martini within easy reach on the nightstand, its juniper fumes promising limitless inspiration.

Who would you have liked to be?
The Incomparable Oscar (Wilde, of course). And in an alternate universe, where he dismisses Lord Douglas as the pernicious little fribble he is, and, spared the horrors of Reading Gaol, dies a centenarian in 1954, a literary lion, the toast of the talkshows, his wit undulled by age, and not a minute too soon to have bedded a young Don Draper---
and a young Joan Holloway. (Wilde, remember, was bi-, historical revisionism notwithstanding.)

Read the full Q&A.