When William S. Burroughs befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while living in 1940s NYC, the three’s mutual influence would be heralded as the foundation of the Beat Movement, a revolutionary artistic outpouring of free expression and counterculture thought. As one of America’s most transgressive literary leaders – an avowed homosexual drug addict with a penchant for guns who shot his second wife dead in a drunken game of William Tell – Burroughs’ pervasive impact on literature, pop culture, visual art, and rock’n’roll is still felt to this day.
A longtime heroin addict, Burroughs published his first novel Junky, an unflinching semi-autobiographical account of drug culture, under the pen name William Lee in 1953. Though his debut did well, he’s best known for his third book Naked Lunch – another harrowing look at the addict’s underworld, riddled with repressed homosexuality and police paranoia – which became the subject of the last obscenity trial against a work of literature in the United States.
Much of Burroughs’ extensive oeuvre – totaling eighteen novels and novellas, six short story collections, and four essay collections – is marked by an avant-garde technique that involved cutting up and rearranging random pieces of text. Originally employed by the Dadaists of the 1920s, Burroughs’ popularization of the cut-up technique had a significant influence on postmodern writers and pioneering musicians alike.
As for his own inspirations, Burroughs named his 10 all-time favorite novels in the 1980 People’s Almanac collection The Books of Lists 2. From Joseph Conrad to Jean Genet, explore his reading list below, and complement with the bookshelves of fellow renegades Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Tom Waits.
William S. Burroughs’ Reading List
The Process by Brion Gysin
The Satyricon by Petronius
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Journey to the End of the Night by Louis Ferdinand Céline
Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet
The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe