Beatdom Content

The Best and Worst Beat Book Covers

One should not judge a book by its cover, of course, but judging the cover alone is fair game (as we have talked about before). As such, I thought that I’d take a look at some of the best and worst Beat book covers published over the last six decades.

First, though, before we begin with this totally subjective list, you may want to ask what “Beat” means. This list is not going to be looking at books by the likes of Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson. Although they were great writers and perhaps linked through countercultural affiliations, they were certainly not part of the Beat Generation.

Also, we will be looking at books by the Beats in English as well as translations from around the world. If you want to see a large collection of covers just from China, try here, here, and here.

The Best

Let’s start with a couple of kick-ass Kerouac covers. I’ve chosen these because they capture the vibe of On the Road. There are a million and one very “meh” covers for this book (yeah, we get it, there were cars and chicks and jazz), but a few of them really stood out as cool.

I especially like this one of Jack and Neal. It is simple and – at its core – what is this book about but those two guys and their relationship? Well, it’s about other stuff but that’s possibly the most important.

What about this one – the original and best? This is the first US edition and its simplicity really stands out. It is stark, bold, and attractive.

(By the way, if you want the ultimate collection of Kerouacian covers, visit Dave Moore’s website.)

John Clellon Holmes’ novel, Go, was the first novel about the Beat Generation and this cover from 1958, in an edition published after Kerouac’s magnum opus brought Beat to the masses, is pretty darn cool. It is honestly more suited to a pulp detective book from the forties, but so what? It’s beautiful.

Speaking of noir-style book covers, I had to include this shocking edition of Burroughs’ first book. Yes, it was also published by Ace… and credited to one William Lee, Burroughs’ pseudonym for this book. One of the best parts of his style was his terse, often brutal descriptions of violent, grotesque scenes. This cover takes you right to the heart of the matter.

My favourite Burroughs cover, though, has to be the first French edition of Naked Lunch. How can you not like a book cover that even gets the title wrong?! Better yet, the cover was actually designed by Burroughs himself – and not, as many assumed, his buddy, Brion Gysin.

How could we not include this next one? Simple, spare, classic… The City Lights Pocket Poet series was iconic, and this particular book was and is a must-have. It’s hardly an original choice, but it’s certainly one of the most era-defining book covers ever printed.

The Worst

There are a ton of bad Beat covers, particularly for those popular books that have had dozens or hundreds of editions printed. Kerouac’s On the Road, which had so many great covers, also has myriad cheesy versions that totally detract from the brilliance of the text. Just look at these monstrosities:

Is it a children’s book?!

Is it a goddamn eighties teen movie?!

Most of the covers for Burroughs’ books are interesting at the very least. He was, after all, a weird guy with some disturbing books. The people who like and publish these tend to have an odd sort of creativity that produces covers that are not beautiful but certainly fascinating. However, a few of them are plain lazy and some of them just ugly. Why bother just sticking a picture of the author on the cover? This is a very half-assed attempt:

And…?

So what have we missed? What do you think are the best and worst Beat book covers? Leave a comment below if we have overlooked something.

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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