The 5 Best Books About William S. Burroughs

Last week, I reviewed a new book about William S. Burroughs that focused on the author’s time in Europe during the 1930s. This was a short but fascinating study of a really under-appreciated period in Burroughs’ life, and ever since the centenary of his birth in 2014 we have seen a number of such books appear.

In addition to my own book (Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’), there have been a range of books that examined Burroughs in regards to magic, ecology, music, and more. These have helped add substance and perspective where other texts cannot or will not go.

Below, I’m going to list some of the best books about William S. Burroughs’ life and/or work. I will of course exclude my own book from the list for reasons of fairness, and I will also not include any of Burroughs’ own work, such as the recently released short Penguin title, The Finger.

1. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, by Ted Morgan

This book has taken a little flack because it is undeniably outdated. Now, with the publication of Barry Miles’ excellent – and far more detailed – Call Me Burroughs: A Life, there seems little reason to read Literary Outlaw.

However, this remains my favourite Burroughs biography. Despite it glossing over important parts of his life and despite a few small errors, it is a wonderful book. It is genuinely enjoyable to read, but at the same time as informative and factual as you’d want a biography to be. If I were to recommend a biography for the purposes of research, I’d tell a student to pick up the Miles book… but for pure reading enjoyment and a sense of the life of Bill Burroughs, I’d always suggest the Morgan one.

It can still be purchased on Amazon.

2. William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Casey Rae

Maybe I’m biased towards books about Burroughs that include “cult” in the title, but I really enjoyed this book that attempts the difficult task of exploring and explaining Burroughs’ relationship with music.

This is not a perfect book by any means. I reviewed it for the American Book Review when it first came out and voiced my criticisms of certain speculative elements … but none of that detracted from the fact that it was immensely interesting.

If you want to know what went on between Burroughs and any of the following, then pick up a copy and start reading: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Tom Waits… In fact, I could stop here and you could fill in the rest with a list of “the most famous rock icons.”

Grab a copy from Amazon.

3. The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas, by Rob Johnson

This was the book that actually convinced me to write my own one on Burroughs. Robert Johnson looked into the life of a world-renowned author and said to himself, “Hold on a sec… There’s a very important piece missing!” This inspired me to do the same, and others like Matthew Levi Stevens, Chad Weidner, and Thomas Antonic have added important texts on the same premise.

The Lost Years is a fascinating look at Burroughs’ life in Texas, where he was visited by the other Beats, including Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and Huncke. Johnson attempted to provide some local colour as well as setting Burroughs’ stay in its proper historical context. The result is a truly important text that has further opened Burroughs’ life to critical and biographical study.

It can be purchased from Amazon here.

4. William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century

I was a little hesitant to include this book in the list because it was rather uneven, with some quite weak essays in the collection. However, there are weaknesses in all books, including the one that I chose to go first on this list.

For me, the highlights of this book are enough to make it entirely worthy of a place on this list. There is Oliver Harris’ essay that begins the book, as well as Laura Palmer’s attempt to analyse Burroughs’ peculiar voice. Timothy Murphy and Kurt Hemmer also have excellent contributions, and there are several interviews here with people like Barry Miles and Regina Weinreich.

You can read my full review here. It can be bought on Amazon here.

5. The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs, by Matthew Levi Stevens

Burroughs had some weird ideas during his lifetime. In fact, there weren’t many crank theories or bizarre superstitions that he came across without exploring at least for a while, from Scientology to Mayan mind control calendars to Orgone Accumulators… and then, of course, there was magic.

El Hombre Invisible was fascinated with magic and it permeated much of his life and work. Alas, like Scientology the crackpot aspect dissuaded many critics from seriously examining his views. Thankfully, Stevens has delved into the fray and looked at how, why, and when Burroughs incorporated the magical universe into his life and literature.

This is an excellent book and of tremendous value. Find it here on Amazon.

So what do you think are the best books about William S. Burroughs? Leave your opinion in the comment section.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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