I’ve never told this to anyone before: I credit Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, for getting me into the University of Oxford.
Morrison wasn’t my sole influence. I had many influences pushing me towards the university. But he was the biggest driving force. Specifically, I believe it was due to me reading the books that Morrison read that led me to be intelligent enough to pass the Oxford interviews, deftly handle the Oxford placement tests, and continue to hold my own during academic discussions.
I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins’ and Danny Sugarman’s masterful biography of Jim Morrison, when I was twelve years old. I was already reading Shakespeare and Dickens and writing poetry and stories at that age so I wasn’t the most usual child. But my reading quickly exploded after reading Morrison’s biography and seeing some of the books he devoured when he was in his teenage years.
I followed the literary breadcrumbs – like I still do today – and, by the time I finished high school, I had been exposed to a seriously diverse array of books than spanned the great literary and philosophical canons of many countries across the world.
Without further ado, let’s stick The Doors on the jukebox and get into the Jim Morrison Reading List.
The Jim Morrison Reading List
This reading list is just a starting point and a pale snapshot of what books Jim Morrison read.
Morrison was an incredibly voracious reader in his teens. He had thousands of books crammed from floor to ceiling in his room and, by all personal accounts, he read all of them.
To be as well read as Jim Morrison, you need to read voraciously. You need to have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a compulsive curiosity about the world, poetry, politics, philosophy, anthropology, and more.
You’ll also need either a big book budget or a library card. I recommend a little of both. Luckily a lot of books loved by Morrison are older classics and you can pick them up either completely free (via sites like Gutenberg) or get very cheap volumes second hand or by utilising many of the cheaper printing houses (like Wordsworth and Dover editions).
The Beats: A Reading List
Jim sat in his room in the evening, alone. He closed the book that had held him captive for four hours, releasing a deep breath. the next morning he began to read the book again. This time he copied paragraphs he liked into a spiral notebook that he’d started to carry around with him. The book was Jack Kerouac’s novel about the Beat Generation, On the Road. – Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, No One Here Gets Out Alive
Listen to Jim Morrison’s spoken word poetry on his An American Prayer and you’ll notice his style possesses a serious indebtedness to the writers of the Beat Generation.
The Beat Generation is the name given to a cluster of post-war 1950s American writers (most intimate friends with one another) whose works deal with spiritualism, jazz, drugs, sexuality, and the human condition.
Big Beat names include:
- Jack Kerouac
- Gregory Corso
- Allen Ginsberg
- William S. Burroughs
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I followed the breadcrumb left in No One Here Gets Out Alive and picked up a copy of On the Road.
Like Morrison, I read the whole book in one sitting and was transfixed by the world, the era, and the values Kerouac paints.
Almost a decade later, when it came for me to write my final dissertation at Oxford, I wrote a 6,000-word essay entitled “Conceptions of Universal and Individual Consciousness in the Writing of the Beat Generations” and ended up devouring hundreds of books and articles by and about the Beats.
If you’re only going to read one Beat Generation writer, make it Kerouac.
If you want to get into Kerouac, I recommend you read him in the following order. This should make you fall in love with him:
- The Dharma Bums: Everyone raves about On The Road, which is great, but The Dharma Bums is a lot easier for a first-time reader. It’s smaller, more condensed, less rambling, has a tighter narrative, contains Kerouac’s philosophy, and is a lot of fun.
- On The Road: This is a real eye-opening reading experience for many people. It’s Kerouac’s most famous work for a reason. Supposedly he wrote the whole thing in a stream-of-consciousness style over 3 weeks. Crazy, man!
- Tristessa: This is a novella based on Kerouac’s relationship with a Mexican prostitute. The prose reads like poetry. It’s a great work and, after you’ve read The Dharma Bums and On The Road, this one is easy to get through and gives you a sense of Kerouac connoisseurship because this is one of his lesser-known works (compared to the others).
- The Subterraneans: If you’ve caught Beat fever, you’ll inhale this book. It’s slim, fast-paced, and the writing is like a shot of amphetamines.
- Big Sur: This is a slow-paced novel and was written later in Kerouac’s career as he struggled to deal with his mounting fame.
After you’ve enjoyed those books, you should pick and choose which Kerouac to read next depending on what you want to explore.
As a rough further reading list, I would suggest:
- Doctor Sax
- Mexico City Blues
- Desolation Angels
- Visions of Cody
- The Town and the City
- The Sea is My Brother
Also be sure to check out some of Jack Kerouac’s live readings of his work. He has a beautiful voice, don’t you think?
In addition to Kerouac’s oeuvre, read and listen to the poetry of Corso, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti:
- Read Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death and Gasoline
- Read Ginsberg’s Howl and dive into his Collected Poems
- Listen to Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind
Read William S. Burroughs, starting with his more accessible work and moving towards his difficult cut-up narratives.
Read Burroughs in this order:
Then learn more about the Beats by reading interviews:
- The Paris Review: William S. Burroughs
- The Paris Review: Allen Ginsberg
- The Paris Review: Jack Kerouac
If all of that seems overwhelming and you want just one book to learn more about the Beat Generation, get this book:
Poetry: A Reading List
The poet makes himself a visionary by a long derangement of all the senses. Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. – Arthur Rimbaud
When Morrison wanted to get away from the limelight and the unpleasant legal proceedings following the incident in Miami, it was no shock to the people closest to him that he chose to escape to Paris. The city is also where he would die at age twenty-seven, a fact that holds great poignancy given how deeply the literature of France had embedded itself in his soul.
A glance through Morrison’s own volume of poetry, The Lords and the New Creatures, reveals a stark obsession with drugs, death, and sex. Morrison’s preoccupation with these themes had many roots but perhaps the deepest one came from his love of French symbolist poetry.
Start your journey through the French Symbolist poets with Arthur Rimbaud, a brilliant poet who wrote all of his best work during his teenage years and, like Morrison, died tragically young:
- Graham Robb’s biography of Rimbaud is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. It will give you a good understanding of the literary climate in Paris during the late nineteenth-cenury.
- Wyatt Mason’s Complete Collection of Rimbaud’s works is the best translation of the poet I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). The introduction alone is worth the price for anyone interested in the tricky task of translation.
- Wallace Fowlie’s Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet is a fascinating read from another world-class Rimbaud translator that draws great comparisons between the two.
After you’ve got acquainted with Rimbaud, try these works by French Symbolists on for size:
- The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
- The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire
- Selected Poems of Paul Verlaine
- Selected Poetry and Prose Stéphane Mallarmé
Morrison was also big into the English romantics. One key writer was William Blake whose ‘doors of perception’ quote inspired Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and then inspired the name of The Doors.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
For some of the most inspiring poetry ever penned, read the Romantics of the 18th century.
One major idea that ran through the Romantics was that of the sublime and the beautiful – both themes we see again and again in Morrison’s work.
For an overview of the Romantic Sublime, check out my article here:
Now for a Romantic reading list. Remember, this stuff is old so it can be found for free or cheap. These are the big authors. Just get their complete works and have fun hunting for your personal favourite poems:
- Lord Byron
- John Keats
- William Blake
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- William Wordsworth
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Non-fiction: A Reading List
This is where Jim Morrison’s reading habits get really interesting. The rockstar would read anything he could find but he also had some oddly specific tastes. Mythology, demonology, philosophy, and psychology would all inform his later works in profound ways.
- Friedrich Nietzsche – Morrison read everything this German philosopher put out and was perhaps most affected by his The Birth of Tragedy. Start with that volume (it’s slim), then move on to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Genealogy of Morality, Beyond Good and Evil, and Human All Too Human.
- Once you’ve read Nietzsche, follow the threads. See who influenced him and who was influenced by him. Schopenhauer, Plato, Sartre, to name just three possible avenues to take next.
- Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks – Much of Morrison’s demeanour was inspired by Alexander the Great.
- Colin Wilson’s The Outsider – This is the classic text on alienation and the literary case studies inside will take you deeper down the rabbit hole. Continue to follow the breadcrumbs.
- Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds – Morrison was fascinated by mob and crowd psychology, a fact you can see if you watch any of his interactions with the fans at his concerts. This book takes a fascinating look at things like witch mania and the South Sea bubble.
- Read the main works put out by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – I would start with Civilisation and Its Discontents and Man and His Symbols.
- Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death will take your understanding of psychoanalysis deeper.
- Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces will give you a bird’s eye view of world mythology. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough will deepen your understanding and appreciation of myth and magic.
Direct your own reading. Follow threads. Follow interests. Explore. Scribble in margins. Tear out bibliographies. Spend aimless Sunday afternoon’s wandering through second hand bookshops. Fall in love with the written word. Keep a notebook. Write frenzied poetry. Share your love with others.
Morrison read a lot more than listed here. I could direct you to the works of Michael McClure, James T. Farrell, Kenneth Patchen, Balzac, Cocteau, Molière, Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, James Joyce. But the most valuable thing I can direct you now is having an open mind ready like a sponge to soak up everything and anything.
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