Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Portable Beat Reader

534647Beginning in the late 1940s, American literature discovered a four-letter word, and the word was "beat." Beat as in poverty and beatitude, ecstacy and exile. Beat was Jack Kerouac touring the American road in prose as fast and reckless as a V-8 Chevy. It was the junk-sick surrealism of William Burroughs, the wild, Whitmanesque poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and the lumberjack Zen of Gary Snyder. "The Portable Beat Reader" collects the most significant writing of these and fellow members (and spiritual descendants) of the Beat Generation, including Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Diane DiPrima, Bob Dylan, Leroi Jones, and Michael McClure. In poetry, fiction, essays, song lyrics, letters, and memoirs, it captures the triumphant rudeness, energy, and exhilaration of a movement that swept through American letters with hurricane force.

*May Contain Spoilers*

Surprisingly, out of everything I've read, I had never read anything from the Beat Movement before this. It was a time of rebellion and rejection of conformity mixed with experimentation of style in both writing and life. The Portable Beat Reader is a collection of essays, novel excerpts, and poems that really summarizes the Beat Movement. 

For the most part, I loved the work. I know it made a huge splash in the 1940s and 50s, but I think it's still relevant to today's society. There is still controversy over some (most?) of the topics the Beat authors wrote about and it makes the work feel timeless. A bit of a warning seems prudent here: Yes, some of the pieces are a bit offensive, some were seized for obscenity upon publication. I think this adds to the importance of the rebellious tone these authors took.

I really enjoyed how the book was about more than just Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg. These names hold weight, but they weren't the sole members of the Beat Generation. It was, in fact, a generation with many contributors. Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, and John Clellon Holmes were three writers who really stood out to me. With themes that range from sexuality to war to stereotypical expectations of society, these authors challenged it all.

For readers who have never read anything from the beatnik authors, but are interested in this idea of writing a rebellion, I highly recommend The Portable Beat Reader. It's a strong collection that offers the history of the era, short biographies of the authors, and the works themselves. 

Rating: 4/5 Cups


  1. This is one I'm hoping to get from my library if they have it. We only covered the beatniks for about a week in high school and I loved learning about them but never really re-visited them. This seems like a great way for doing so.
    -Kimberly @ Turning the Pages

    1. We just did a week on them for my Master's Program and reading this book was vital to the discussion. I'm using them for my final research paper and it's just so intriguing. I had never read anything like this before and I really enjoyed the rebellious and risky nature of the various authors.

  2. I wasn't familiar with the Beat Movement, so quite evidently I have not read anything from it. I will have to give this a try. It's like a compulsion for me now that I know that it's out there.