Strolling through Haight-Ashbury in 1967, it was George Harrison -- the quiet Beatle, for God's sake, and the one with the sitar! -- who delivered one of the most caustic putdowns of hippies. "Somehow I expected them all to own their own little shops. I expected them to all to be nice and clean and friendly and happy," said the future composer of "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," sounding more like Spiro Agnew than Ravi Shankar for a moment. Rather than love children, Harrison encountered what he called "hideous, spotty little teenagers" who "were all terribly dirty and scruffy."

You'll find that anecdote, and many more like it, in Hippie, by Barry Miles (Sterling, $24.95), a spectacularly designed (by Grant Scott) coffee table book that is every bit as captivating, colorful and self-congratulatory as the eponymous social type it describes. "Call them freaks, the underground, the counterculture, flower children or hippies," writes Miles, they "transformed life in the West as we knew it, introducing a spirit of freedom, of hope, of happiness, of change and of revolution." He focuses on the years 1965 to 1971, evoking the immense variety of hippies with an obsessive and encyclopedic attention to detail that has scarcely been seen in American letters since Ishmael's musings on sea creatures in Moby-Dick.

To his credit, Miles, best known as a biographer of those proto-hippies, the Beats, doesn't shy away from the dark side of '60s youth culture. The Manson Family, not just the Merry Pranksters, appears in DayGlo detail. Nor does he gloss over the misogyny at the heart of much of "freak culture," even as he convincingly argues it ultimately helped to liberate women, gays and straights. The freshest part of the book is the attention paid to European variants, and the colorful reprints from the censored English underground mag Oz are worth the price of Hippie alone.

There's little doubt that the hippie heyday helped usher in what the anthropologist Grant McCracken has called an age of "plenitude" or "a quickening speciation of social groups." We live in a looser, less uptight America thanks to the antics of San Francisco's Diggers, New York's Fugs and every anonymous longhair in between. That's a powerful legacy that even the notoriously anti-hippie punks of the '70s -- themselves a case study in anxiety-inducing self-fashioning -- would have to grant their flower-wielding forerunners.

Nick Gillespie is editor of Reason magazine and the new collection, "Choice: The Best of Reason."