The Beat Generation are an often misunderstood group of souls. Even figuring out who and what they are is notoriously difficult. Yet there is no shortage of great books about the Beat writers and their fascinating lives and work. Below, I have collected what I consider the 12 essential books about the Beat Generation. (I have not included any works of actual Beat literature – ie On the Road, “Howl“, or Naked Lunch.
Let’s start with Jack Kerouac. There are dozens of books about his life and work, but one of the most interesting is Joyce Johnson’s recent work, The Voice is All. It is a biography, yet it doesn’t cover all of his life. Instead, it takes a remarkably new look at how his unique voice was shaped through his early life experiences, with a focus on the importance of his French-Canadian heritage.
While we’re looking at Kerouac, this nearly 30-year-old book took the novel approach of exploring his life through the voice of those who knew him. Gifford and Lee did an amazing job of interviewing countless contemporaries and then patching their voices together into a revealing and utterly compelling biography. It may not be as informative as, say, biographies from Paul Maher, Tom Clark, or Ann Charters, but nothing gives you a better understanding of Kerouac than the stories told by his friends and family.
This is one of the earliest books about the Beat Generation, and certainly one of the first books to take them seriously as literary figures rather than a cultural sideshow. Tytell’s study is now a classic work and remains absolutely essential reading for scholars of the Beat Generation. John has written other books about the Beats including Paradise Outlaws, The Beat Interviews, and Beat Transnationalism.
It may seem odd to put such a new book on the list, but I have rarely been as impressed with a text as with this one. Best Minds is comprised of Ginsberg’s lectures on the Beat Generation and expertly compiled by Bill Morgan. Although there are some factual errors, Ginsberg’s guide to the Beats is revealing, and even after more than a decade of studying this movement, I learned a lot from this book.
It was hard to pick a best biography for Allen Ginsberg, as both Barry Miles and Michael Schumacher have given us fantastic books about the poet, but for me Bill Morgan’s biography was a little better than the others. More readable and slightly more accurate, I found it essential in researching various essays about Ginsberg, as well as my own forthcoming book project about Allen’s travels.
Many would choose Barry Miles’ Burroughs biography over this one by Ted Morgan, but for me the older text is more enjoyable. Miles’ book is certainly the better choice for scholars as it is better researched and more accurate, but Morgan’s is the classic biography. For me, it has more heart. This results in a few flaws in the book, but I find it to be more enjoyable reading.
Don’t go thinking that the Beat Generation was just a boys’ club… To a certain extent, it was just that and the main figures in the movement were guilty of sexist attitudes. The women were somewhat written out of the movement’s history, but in recent years a resurgence of interest has cast new light on important female Beats. In that same vein of thought, check out Joyce Johnson’s brilliant Minor Characters.
Jonah Raskin’s book looks at how Allen Ginsberg’s masterpiece was written. It is the best book yet on this important poem.
So far in the list I have chosen books that cover the lives of the three best-known “best minds” and also the women writers who are so often overlooked. We have books about Ginsberg’s poetry and Kerouac’s prose. But we have not yet fast-forwarded to the last fifties and early sixties, when the Beats really ceased to be the Beat Generation and moved on to produce some of their most important work in an entirely different environment – the infamous Beat Hotel in Paris.
All-too-often, the Beat Generation writers were thought of as bohemians who produced some art that was weird enough to shake things up. They are seldom understood for their brilliance with words, except in dense books by professors that are read only by students. Beckett’s book explores some of the best Beat poetry in depth, yet is highly readable. Like Eliot Katz, Beckett is a poet-scholar whose understanding of poetry and way with words makes for an eminently readable exploration of Beat poetics.
One of the few truly great and also comprehensive books about the Beat Generation. A truly essential reference book that should have a place of the shelves of any self-respecting Beat student.
Speaking of Beat reference books, Kurt Hemmer’s encyclopedia is another truly essential guide to the Beat Generation. Listing the major people and works connected to the Beat Generation between 1944 and 1967, Hemmer has gathered everything you really need to know into one indispensable volume.
There are so many great books about the Beat Generation, and we at Beatdom Books are proud to publish nearly a dozen of them. Check out books.beatdom.com to see our own Beat titles.