Kerouac’s Top 40

Kerouac’s Top 40

When Jack Kerouac wasn’t writing or driving or drinking, he was reading. Here, 40 of his favorite books and authors, with commentary from the King of the Beats himself. (Punctuation and spelling are Kerouac’s own.)

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come
John Fox
“My earliest childhood readings were Catechism in French, the Bible in French, and the LITTLE SHEPHERD OF KINGDOM COME…” —Letter to Andreas Brown, Sept. 22, 1969

The Call of the Wild
Jack London
“The first ‘serious’ writing took place after I read about Jack London at the age of 17. Like Jack, I began to paste up ‘long words’ on my bedroom wall in order to memorize them perfectly.” —Letter to Donald Allen, Oct. 1, 1959

The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway
“Hemingway was fascinating, the pearls of words on a white page giving you an exact picture…” —THE PARIS REVIEW Interview, Summer 1968

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and…
William Saroyan
“My father said that Saroyan…William Saroyan ain’t tragic at all…he’s fulla shit. And I had a big argument with him. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze is pretty tragic, I would say…Flying. A young man on the flying trapeze. That was a beautiful story. It killed me when I was a kid…I loved him as a teenager, he really got me out of the nineteenth-century rut I was trying to study, not only with his funny tone but also with his neat Armenian poetic—I don’t know what…he just got me…” —THE PARIS REVIEW Interview, Summer 1968

War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy
“’War and Peace’ was great because Tolstoi looked around instead of sitting there picking his nose in a garret.” —Letter to Sebastian Sampas, Mar. 25, 1943

The Well of Loneliness
Radclyffe Hall
“It’s been a long, dreary, grim, depressing voyage, as usual, but I had plenty of time to read several good books: I specialized this time on the English: Galsworthy, Hugh Walpole, Radclyffe Hall’s ‘Well of Loneliness’ (which I recommend you to read)…” —Letter to Edith Parker, Sept. 18, 1943

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Ranier Maria Rilke
“Your little letter moved me, I must say…particularly the line, ‘I was so sick that I found myself worrying about the future of man’s soul, my own in particular.’ There you elicited the true picture of things terrestrial…namely, disease and loss and death. I like the way Rilke faces these facts in his un-Bourgeois way, and I must say I don’t particularly approve of forgetting the facts of life and death in an orgy of intellectual pseudo-synthesis…” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Sept. 6, 1945

White Nights and Other Stories
Fyoder Dostoyevsky
—“I’ve just read ‘An Unfortunate Predicament,’ a long story by Dusty-what’s-his-name. I studied it carefully and found that he begins with ‘ideas’ and then demolishes them in the fury of what actually happens in the story.” —Letter to Alan Harrington, Apr. 23, 1949

Walden
Henry David Thoreau
“I want to be left alone. I want to sit in the grass. I want to ride my horse. I want to lay a woman naked in the grass on the mountainside. I want to think. I want to pray. I want to sleep. I want to look at the stars. I want what I want. I want to get and prepare my own food, with my own hands, and live that way. I want to roll my own. I want to smoke some deermeat and pack it in my saddlebag, and go away over the bluff. I want to read books. I want to write books. I’ll write books in the woods. Thoreau was right…” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, June 10, 1949

The Confidence-Man
Herman Melville
“Melville in Confidence Man is the strangest voice ever heard in America…partly Shakespearean with a beautiful interspersion of backwoods voices…” —Letter to Neal Cassady, Oct. 6, 1950

Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry
“…get high on good shit and open the pages of Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ for the end of the line or at least the best (for you) since Proust & Joyce…certain parts of ‘Volcano’ are our personal meat.” —Letter to Neal Cassady, Aug. 31, 1951

The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume I: The…
William Butler Yeats
“[E]verything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words (which effortless angels of the vision fly when you stand in front of reality) and write with 100% personal honesty both psychic and social etc. and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing. Traditional source: Yeats’ trance writing, of course. It’s the only way to write.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, May 18, 1952

Delilah: A Novel about a U.S. Navy Destroyer and…
Marcus Goodrich
“When something is incomprehensible to me (‘Finnegan’s Wake,’ Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano,’ ‘Delilah’ by Marcus Goodrich) I try to understand it, the author’s intellect, and passion, and mystery. To label it incoherent is not only a semantic mistake but an act of cowardice and intellectual death.” —Letter to Carl Solomon, Aug, 5, 1952

Go
John Clellon Holmes
“Go is alright when you see it between book covers, it’s sincere, each page…Truman Capote, Jean Stafford are full of bull on every page…so Holmes is better than they I say.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Nov. 8, 1952

Selected Poems of Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound
“…I’ve just written a strange dark book about Lowell called Doctor Sax—you’ll hear about it, tho it isn’t at the publishers yet—I’m now writing a bigger novel than Town & City—about Lowell—I’ve also written a 550 page novel called ON THE ROAD which is a vision of America that is so wild none of the publishers understand it—but it will be discovered later, for my position in this generation is a whole lot like Ezra Pound in his—It was Pound influenced Gertrude Stein and she influenced Hemingway; it was Pound influenced T.S. Eliot; but where is Pound? In the madhouse. What are his works? The foundations of 20th Century American letters—I’ve been in the madhouse once and will be in the madhouse again—but it will be because of love.” —Letter to Stella Sampas, Dec. 10, 1952

A Buddhist Bible
Dwight Goddard
“This is by far the best book [for beginning studies of Buddhism] because it contains the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatra Scripture, not to mention the 11-page Diamond Sutra which is the last word, and Asvaghosha’s Awakening of Faith, and the Tao. The Buddhist Bible uses sources—from the Pali, the Sanskrit, the Thibetan, Chinese, Burmese and modern.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, May 1954

Howl and Other Poems
Allen S. Ginsberg
“Your Howl for Carl Solomon is very powerful, but I don’t want it arbitrarily negated by secondary emendations made in time’s reconsidering backstep. I want your lingual spontaneity or nothing…” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Aug. 19, 1955

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam
“[R]ead the great writers, read Balzac, Han Shan, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky. No, read the great writers, stick to Rabelais, stick to Homer, stick to [Omar] Khayyam (a real poet, a grapey poet)—never mind the mediocrities of Thomas Hardy and Goethe and for God sake throw that Gertrude Stein away she makes me puke…” —Letter to Philip Whalen, Jan. 16, 1956

The Complete Poems
Emily Dickinson
“Haiku is nice but it’s small, I mean, there are a million haikus in one good prose work and a million haikus in the Great Emily Dickinson too—that rhyme even!” —Letter to Philip Whalen, Jan. 16, 1956

Fear and Trembling
Søren Kierkegaard
“Ten days at sea studying history & Kierkegaard have opened new cracks in my mind…You must read FEAR AND TREMBLING (never mind SICKNESS UNTO DEATH, which is an abstract discussion of despair)—F&T is about Abraham & Isaac & made me cry.” —Undated Letter to Joyce Glassman

Naked Lunch
William S. Burroughs
“Burroughs did not deliberately shoot his wife, and I am one of the few who know it…He has just written the most fantastic book since Genet’s OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS and it is called WORD HOARD [working title of Naked Lunch]…definitely a great writer, and it will take time for the world to accept that fact because of the curious martyr streak…” —Letter to Malcolm Cowley, Mar. 8, 1957

Don Quixote
Miguel De Cervantes
“…I’m reading Don Quixote which is probably the most sublime work of any man ever lived, thank God for Spain! All living creatures are Don Quixote of course, since living is illusion.” —Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, Nov. 30, 1957

Shakespeare’s Sonnets & Poems
William Shakespeare
“Poetry is Shakespeare and nobody but Shakespeare and don’t Pound me no Tolstoy me broach me no rejoinder! Shakespeare is a vast continent, Shelley is a village…Shakespeare is the end. Apollinaire is a veritable cow’s turd in a meadow in the continent of Shakespeare.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, & Gregory Corso, Dec. 10, 1957

Cousin Bette
Honoré De Balzac
“…you know the greatest of all Balzac’s novels is Cousin Bette.” —Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, Jan. 21, 1958

Our Lady of the Flowers
Jean Genet
“There’s a great writer, Jean Genet.” —THE PARIS REVIEW Interview, Summer 1968

Last Exit to Brooklyn
Hubert Selby Jr.
“He’s in Brooklyn, our veritable little old Genet tho I’ve seen greater homosexual prose descriptions etc. by Allen and Burroughs. But Selby is a brave fine writer and his address is 626 Clinton St., Brooklyn.” —Letter to Donald Allen, Feb. 11, 1958

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain
“There will be a great writer who will rise above us but I’m sure he will be a young American kid in about ten or twenty years, like after Melville and Whitman there came Twain.” —Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, June 18, 1959

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey
“Publishers send me at least a book a week to comment upon. I just finished writing my new novel ‘Big Sur’ so you can see I’m busy. So sometimes I just glance at these novels, and if I see the prose is bad I don’t answer, if the prose is interesting I send a post card. If the prose is really very good I write a little more. I have my own work to do. But I’ve just read all of Ken Kesey’s book, because I’d thought at first glance the prose was unusually good (‘talented and honest,’ remember?) but now I see I have to make a truly honest statement about this here Ken Kesey: ‘A GREAT MAN AND A GREAT NEW AMERICAN NOVELIST!’…It’s a powerful novel. MacMurphy is a great character and so are George and the Swede, the girls, the Big Nurse and others…[T]his guy is great. And it will be of great interest for all of us to see his second novel.” —Letter to Tom Guinzburg, Oct. 19, 1961

Collected Letters, 1944-1967
Neal Cassady
“The discovery of a style of my own based on spontaneous get-with-it, came after reading the marvelous free narrative letters of Neal Cassady, a great writer who happens also to be the Dean Moriarity of ‘On the Road.’” —Letter to Donald Allen, Oct. 1, 1959

Three Novels
Samuel Beckett
“I’m seeing Allen tomorrow—I’m enjoying Beckett’s books.” —Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sept. 1960

Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov
“Just read Nabokov’s Lolita which is one of the classics of world literature and ranks with Joyce, Proust, Mann, and Genet in the divine solipsism of modern literature…My opinion of him, earlier formed by critics, was low…and so there you have our marvelously competent American critics.” —Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, June 15, 1962

Journey to the End of the Night
Louis-Ferdinand Céline 2006
“…I can’t be making unqualified rave statements about any contemporary author except Céline. I really love Céline…He spits out with such barroom frankness.” —Letter to John Clellon Holmes, July 21, 1958

In Search of Lost Time
Marcel Proust 4832 pages | 2012
“…reading Proust…still only in middle of Volume II, breaking Neal Cass[ady]’s record of spending 3 years on Proust (I’ve been at it now for nine).”—Letter to Philip Whalen, Jan. 18, 1960

Look Homeward, Angel
Thomas Wolfe 544 pages | 1997
“No one in America, notwithstanding, has ever said as much as Wolfe said. I am not going to discredit Wolfe, as so many fools are doing now in the light of contemporary history: it gives these fools a new sense of superiority to discredit the master, and it will last until they rediscover his essential greatness, which may be too late and may cause a great deal of mortification. Wolfe wrote about the essential and everlasting America, not the V-for-Victory America.” —Letter to Bill Ryan, Jan. 10, 1943

The Decline of the West
Oswald Spengler
“…’beat’ is the Second Religiousness of Western Civilization as prophesied by Spengler…” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Aug. 9, 1957

Some Came Running
James Jones
“I’m reading SOME CAME RUNNING and find Jones to be a great big earnest Wolfean Dreiserean American genius of the novel, don’t let nobody tell you otherwise. His characters sit right on your shoulder.” —Letter to John Clellon Holmes, Oct. 5, 1963

The Presidential Papers
Norman Mailer
“…read Norman Mailer’s brilliant ‘Papers’ where I don’t believe in his personal attack on Kennedy person but the ‘Essay on Waste’ a Pope-Bacon classic and also piece on Liston-Patterson fight…” —Letter to Philip Whalen, Nov. 18, 1963

Arrival And Departure
Arthur Koestler
“A psychoanalyst I recently met…claims that what I need is an operation—a psychoanalytical operation on my will…My case if anything very closely resembles the case of Peter Slavek in a great contemporary novel by Arthur Koestler, ‘Arrival and Departure.’…” —Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake, Mar. 14, 1965

Ulysses
James Joyce
“On the Road is inspired in its entirety…I can tell now as I look back on the flood of language. It is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, May 18, 1952

Adams Cantos
Ezra Pound
“…I’ve just written a strange dark book about Lowell called Doctor Sax—you’ll hear about it, tho it isn’t at the publishers yet—I’m now writing a bigger novel than Town & City—about Lowell—I’ve also written a 550 page novel called ON THE ROAD which is a vision of America that is so wild none of the publishers understand it—but it will be discovered later, for my position in this generation is a whole lot like Ezra Pound in his —It was Pound influenced Gertrude Stein and she influenced Hemingway; it was Pound influenced T.S. Eliot; but where is Pound? In the madhouse. What are his works? The foundations of 20th Century American letters—I’ve been in the madhouse once and will be in the madhouse again—but it will be because of love.” —Letter to Stella Sampas, Dec. 10, 1952, Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 1: 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters

Love of the Last Tycoon
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“…this is no Scott Fitzgerald cracup, thanks (see? Crackup) to the fact I can sleep and eat in my mother’s clean home—A year ‘on my own’ in any city of the world and I’d be dead. This is because of my continual insistence on the ecstasy of liquor. (Yet Fitzgerald never wrote better than after his ‘crackup,’ in The Last Tycoon)…” —Letter to Robert Giroux, April 12, 1962, Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2: 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters

The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume XIII: A…
William Butler Yeats
“[E]verything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words (which effortless angels of the vision fly when you stand in front of reality) and write with 100% personal honesty both psychic and social etc. and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing. Traditional source: Yeats’ trance writing, of course. It’s the only way to write.” —Letter to Allen Ginsberg, May 18, 1952, Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 1: 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters

Three Novels
Samuel Beckett
“I’m seeing Allen tomorrow—I’m enjoying Beckett’s books.” —Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sept. 1960, Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2: 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

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