As a young boy in Liverpool, musician and peace activist John Lennon often struggled to connect with his peers and would seek solace in the pages of his aunt’s library. In a 1980 interview, conducted just a few months before his death, he says: “It was scary as a child, because there was nobody to relate to. Neither my auntie nor my friends nor anybody could ever see what I did. It was very, very scary and the only contact I had was reading about an Oscar Wilde or a Dylan Thomas or a Vincent van Gogh – all those books that my auntie had that talked about their suffering because of their visions. Because of what they saw, they were tortured by society for trying to express what they were.”
Fortunately, he’d go on to find many open hearts and minds to share his vision with – starting with The Daily Howl, a book he filled with absurdist comics, caricatures, and poetry, and shared with friends in high school. His lifelong love of wordplay found a much wider audience with the publication of his first book, In His Own Write, in 1964. A work of nonsense literature, its success led to another book deal just a year later, and the story-writing process brought a profound change to his songs: “I’d have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market, and I didn’t consider them (the lyrics or anything) to have any depth at all; to express myself I would write A Spaniard in the Works or In His Own Write, the personal stories which were expressive of my personal emotions. Then I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively.”
But he never set out to be published: “There was never any real thought of writing a book. It was something that snowballed. If I hadn’t been a Beatle I wouldn’t have thought of having the stuff published; I would have been crawling around broke and just writing it and throwing it away. I might have been a Beat poet!”
Indeed, Lennon had a fine affinity for the Beats, and it’s thought that the changing of the “Beetles” original spelling was a sly nod to the progressive poets. Like Bob Dylan, he kept the company of Alan Ginsberg, who considered Lennon “particularly interesting in English minstrel’s tradition.” William S. Burroughs is featured on the Sgt. Pepper cover and Ginsberg (as well as Dylan) gets a personal shoutout in “Give Peace A Chance.”
Aside from the Beats, Lennon had a penchant for classics and comics, as listed in the books he’s known to have read below. Complement with Yoko Ono’s Book Recommendations.
Ronald Searle (illustrations)
“I started trying to draw like Ronald Searle when I was about eight. So there was Jabberwocky and Ronald Searle I was turning into by the time I was thirteen.” -JL
Curiosities of Natural History by Francis T. Buckland
On penning ‘I am the Walrus’: “I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days. It’s from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ To me, it was a beautiful poem. It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles’ work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? (singing) ‘I am the carpenter…'” -JL
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Just William by Richmal Crompton
“I was passing by Dakota Apartments last month, phoned upstairs and visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono for an hour…[Lennon] said he was lying sleepless one night listening to WBAI earphones and heard someone reciting a long poem, he thought it was Dylan till he heard the announcer say it was Ginsberg reading ‘Howl’…said he’d never read it or understood it before, his eye’d seen the page but, ‘I can’t read anything, I can’t get anything from print’, but once hearing it aloud he suddenly understood, he said, why Dylan had often mentioned me to him, and suddenly realized what I was doing and dug it.” -Allen Ginsberg
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
“The first thing they say — ‘Oh! He’s read James Joyce,’ you know. So I hadn’t. And so the first thing I do is buy Finnigan’s Wake and read a chapter. And it’s great, you know, and I dug it, and I felt as though he’s an old friend. But I couldn’t make it right through the book, and so I read a chapter of Finnigan’s Wake and that was the end of it.” -JL
“The acid thing in America was going on long before Pepper. Leary was going around saying, ‘Take it, take it, take it.’ We followed his instruction. I did it just like he said in the Book Of The Dead, and then I wrote Tomorrow Never Knows,’ which is on Revolver, and which was almost the first acid song.” -JL
Introduction by Lennon.
Foreword by Lennon.
Forty-One Years In India by Field Marshal Lord Roberts
Major Works by Jonathan Swift
Major Works by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas
Introduction by Lennon.
Writings and Drawings by James Thurber
“I think I was fifteen when I started ‘Thurberising’ the drawings.” -JL
Complete Works by Oscar Wilde
“I look at early pictures of meself, and I was torn between being Marlon Brando and being the sensitive poet – the Oscar Wilde part of me with the velvet, feminine side.” -JL
Books by John Lennon
In His Own Write (1964)
A Spaniard in the Works (1965)
Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986)