comment: So you have read Naked Lunch and Junkie and maybe even paged though the Nova Trilogy of Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, you think you know William Burroughs. Well that is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is a list of ten Burroughs to sink your teeth into after you have gotten your feet wet.
As with any list, this list has biases. The most notable one is the favoring of material written in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My interest in Burroughs falls in that era, but by no means does yours have to. Many people swear by The Western Lands, Cities of the Red Night, Place of the Dead Roads, etc. They are just not my cup of tea. So enjoy this list and run out and find these books.
1. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan
After scratching the Beat surface, it is time to dig into the grime of the life of el hombre invisible. A truly fascinating life. Until the Grauerholz bio comes out (a projected two part monster), the Morgan bio is the definitive account of Burroughs’ life.
2. The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Vol. 1: 1945-1959 edited by Oliver Harris, Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957, or The Yage Letters
Read all the letters of Burroughs’ you can get your hands on. All the Beats were great letter writers and their correspondence is rich and always interesting. To understand Burroughs’ development as a writer you have to read his letters to Allen Ginsberg (“Perhaps the real novel is the letters to you”). The letters also show the more human, vulnerable side of Burroughs. The man who desperately needs human contact from his position at the edge of the world, both physical and mental.
3. The Burroughs File
The cut up trilogy of Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express are no easy road. Try The Burroughs File which collected Burroughs’ short cut ups from the early 1960’s into the 1970’s. The cut up was Burroughs major creative innovation throughout the 1960’s and a key to his output of this time. These pieces mostly appeared in the little magazines of the period and a tough to get a hold of, but the Burroughs File does all the work for you. All included are photocopies of Burroughs’ journal and chapbooks which are works of art in themselves which brings one to:
This one is extremely difficult to get a hold of but it show that Burroughs’ interest in art began before his shotgun paintings. Burroughs’ cut up version of Time magazine is a beautiful example of Pop Art and Fluxus of the 1960’s. Time sells for several hundred dollars as does the 1970’s piracy, but if you can get a look at it, it shows Burroughs at the forefront of 1960’s Art.
5. Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts
The exhibition catalog to a Burroughs art show which further highlights Burroughs’ connection to Art. A neglected facet of Burroughs’ achievement.
6. William S. Burroughs: A Bibliography, 1953-73 by Maynard and Miles
How in the hell do you keep track of all these obscure little magazines and underground, avant garde presses that kept Burroughs in print. The bibliography of course. Essential if you want to start collecting Burroughs. Maynard and Miles only goes to 1973 but Eric Shoaf published a checklist in 2000 that goes into the late 1990’s. You can find it on eBay or AbeBooks.com.
7. The Best of William Burroughs, from Giorno Poetry Systems
You have not gotten the full Burroughs experience until you have heard him read. His midwestern, nasal deadpan is one of a kind. This collection brings together the earliest voice experiments from the Beat Hotel to readings from The Cat Inside. An entire career in four priceless CDs.
Let’s get back to the novels. An underground classic written in the 1950’s which was whispered about until its publication in 198.A book about sexual addiction and a precursor to the issues of control in Naked Lunch. The preface alone is worth the price of admission. In it, Burroughs makes one of the few statements he would ever make on the death of his wife and the statements are shocking.
9. The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead
A shift in style and content for Burroughs. A relaxation or greater integration of the cut up technique coupled with a change in subject matter makes for in my mind Burroughs’ best book after the Naked Lunch Word Horde. The book ushers in Burroughs’ literary occupations for the next decade plus.
10. Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac had always envisioned writing a Visions of Bill but never truly got around to it. This book written in the bathroom of Burroughs’ house in Mexico City is as close as he got. Burroughs lurks in the fleeting figure of the sinister Dr. Sax.
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