A Burroughs Syllabus

This blog will operate as a mode of output as I work my way through at least 85 works associated with the author William Burroughs.

Some of these books come recommended by Burroughs himself. In particular, those listed in his “Creative Reading” syllabus at Naropa University. Some are also recommended in the letters.

Some are quoted by him, cut-up, sampled or otherwise referenced. I owe Michael Stevens a debt of gratitude for compiling most of these in his exhaustive list; Road to Interzone: Burroughs Reading Burroughs.

A couple are works that, although not directly mentioned by the man, I have no doubt played some key role in informing his style.

I am also working my way through the vast mountain of research available already on Burroughs. Commentary on these might enter the blog on occasions, but not in any systematic manner. I will save that for research outputs.

So why am I undertaking this reading? Well, a number of reasons.

Firstly, I returned to Burroughs after a having not read him for ten years and found that his work still captured my imagination, still stirred me, still caused all the same laughs and chills that it did when I first discovered him at the age of fifteen.

It can be hard to separate a youthful enthusiasm from the thing that stirred that enthusiasm. I loved Jim Morrisons lyrics, for example, but would not now write an academic book about them. I still like them but, objectively, I cannot defend that stance. With a couple of academic books under my belt, however, I feel more entitled to be astounded by Burroughs. I had even been prepared to dislike him; to read back over Naked Lunch, cringing at the tastelessness of my former self.

But this didn’t happen. Still, to this day, the originality of his prose and the intensity of his poetic vision impress upon me their unique brilliance.

Admittedly, I no longer feel Burroughs to be original in that Romantic conception of the word; his work emerging ex nihilo from an indwelling and unique genius. Instead, I now consider it the (no less impressive) product of a widely read and highly cultivated intellect drawing from elements already existent within other writings, combining these elements, adding to them, and then using them to trace new and exciting connections across a rapidly splintering culture.

True originality, they say, lies in the breadth of one’s inspirations.

Secondly, I recently published a research paper in which I analysed the relationship between Burroughs and the writer Anthony Burgess. This was very well received and the two writers’ fans and dedicated scholars said very nice things to me. This might appear a superficial reason to keep working on Burroughs, but it might in fact be the most important. To be welcomed and treated generously in this world is rare, and in academia it’s very rare indeed.

I like Burroughs people and I hope they gain something from this blog.

Finally, I am addicted to writing. I have just finished a number of long-term academic projects, all focusing on post-war British writers. I feel like, realistically, I’ve exhausted that particular subject. I’ve been chipping away at it for more than ten years now. In order to shift my focus, get inside the mind of a new writer, inhabit a new set of places and times, it will take a lot of reading. A huge amount, in fact, before I feel prepared to hazard academic writing again.

But I do love writing, and so this blog will keep me sated in the time between now and the real stuff. A literary apomorphine.

There will be no logical order to this blog and no reasoning behind which book I read next or why. If anyone wants to see the list of 85 I can send it to them, but it won’t mean much. There are hundreds of books not on the list for the simple fact that I’ve read them already. Instead, I’ll set out with only a rough set of coordinates.

Along the way, patterns will no doubt emerge. I do not intend to impose these patterns right from the start. What would be the point? That would be like claiming to already know the answers. I will take this step by step, and post as and when things are read, after I have had time to consider my own response and what Burroughs’ own response might have been. Which book to read next will largely be decided by the whim of the moment.

If a major theme must be found to start us off, it is the idea of “William Burroughs and Literature”. Many critics have pointed out that Burroughs, despite his legendary status, is still treated as an outsider by the literary establishment. Whether this is still the case I’m not sure, but it certainly won’t be once I’m done.

My approach to Burroughs will be that of a traditional literary scholar, searching out connections and parallels, continuities of technique, style and subject matter. From these elements I will demonstrate Burroughs’ connection both to the great tradition itself – the centre of the canon – and to more esoteric, populist, or otherwise unexpected forms.

Somewhere in there I shall find some meaning. Hopefully.

1. Jack Kerouac – Desolation Angels (1965)

2. James Otis – Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks at a Circus (1880)

3. Hafez – Faces of Love (14th Century)

4. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

5. Henry Kuttner – Fury (1947)

6. Franz Kafka – The Great Short Works (1925 – 1927)

7. Alfred Korzybski – Science and Sanity (1933)

8. Dorothy Parker – Complete Poems (1926-1944)

9. Paul Bowles – The Sheltering Sky (1949)

10. Dion Fortune – Psychic Self-Defence (1930)

11. The Egyptian Book of the Dead (~3000BC)

12. Oswald Spengler – The Decline of the West (1926)

13. Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948)

14. John Wesley – A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1872)

15. Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer (1934)

16. Arthur Rimbaud – Collected Poems (1898)

17. Laurence M Janifer – Bloodworld (1965)

18. Joseph Moncure March – The Wild Party (1928)

19. Denton Welch – In Youth is Pleasure (1945)

20. Jack Kerouac – Vanity of Duluoz (1968)

21. Sara Teasdale – Collected Poems (1937)

22. Jean Genet – The Miracle of the Rose (1946)

23. St-John Perse – Anabasis (1924)

24. John Livingston Lowes – The Road to Xanadu (1927)

25. Paul Verlaine – Selected Poems (1866-1913)

26. J.W. Dunne – An Experiment with Time (1927)

27. L Ron Hubbard – Dianetics (1950)

28. Norman Mailer – Ancient Evenings (1983)

29. Colin Wilson – Space Vampires (1978)

30. Poul Anderson – Twilight World (1961)

31. Wilhelm Reich – The Cancer Biopathy (1948)

32. D.H. Lawrence – The Plumed Serpent (1926)

33. Michael Arlen – The Green Hat (1924)

34. Fred Mustard Stewart – The Methuselah Enzyme (1970)

35. Julian Jaynes – The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)

36. Edgar Allan Poe – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1839)

37. Clarence Mulford – Bar 20 and Bar 20 Days (1911)

38. Joseph Conrad – An Outcast of the Islands (1896)

39. Giambattista Vico – New Science (1725)

40. Barrington J Bayley – The Star Virus (1970)

41. Eric Frank Russell – Three to Conquer (1955)

42. Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder – PSI: Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (1970)

43. Carlos Castaneda – The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)

44. Colin Wilson – The Mind Parasites (1967)

45. Jack Black – You Can’t Win (1926)

46. Robert A. Monroe – Journeys Out of the Body (1972)

47. Wilhelm Reich – Character Analysis (1945)

48. J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan (1911)

49. John Yerbury Dent – Reactions of the Human Machine (1936)

50. Henry James – The Turn of the Screw (1898)

51. Laura Lee Burroughs – Flower Arranging, Vol. 1 to 3 (1940-1942)

52. Vilfredo Pareto – Sociological Writings (1935)

53. Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha (1951)

54. Robert Ardrey – African Genesis (1961)

55. George Lyman Kittredge – Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929)

56. H.G. Wells – The Invisible Man (1897)

57. Graham Greene – Brighton Rock (1938)

58. Sri Aurobindo and The Mother – The Hidden Forces of Life (1914 – 1958)

59. Charles F. Gallagher – The United States and North Africa (1963)

60. T.S. Eliot – The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)

61. Georg Groddeck – The Book of the It (1949)

62. H.W. Longfellow – The Song of Hiawatha (1854)

63. Thomas Nashe – The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)