The godfather of the Beats would have been 100 next month. Yet his appetite for controversy never lost its edge with age, as an inviting canon of work attests. Which shall we pick?
William S Burroughs – described in his lifetime by Normal Mailer as the "only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius" – was born on 5 February 1914. The man Jack Kerouac liked to call Old Bull Hubbard is a genuine antiquity. Yet in spite of his venerable age and status, as a writer Burroughs remains an edgy, controversial figure, remaining outside the mainstream, and still able to spring surprises – as a current exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery has shown . A good candidate, in other words, for examination by the Reading Group.
The most obvious choice for our book of the month would be Naked Lunch, and I'd certainly be interested in looking at his most famous novel again, however squeamish I may feel about re-entering Hassan's rumpus room… But Burroughs is more than a one-book author. For my money, his best books may actually be his earliest and latest works. Junky and Queer, his surprisingly straightforward works of confessional fiction, remain shocking and – yes – needle sharp, rivals to Alexander Trocchi in their bleak, but also sometimes joyful, honesty about addiction. At the other end of his long career, The Red Night Trilogy is as strange and haunting as anything he wrote.
But Burroughs is almost as famous for being famous as he is for writing novels. He plays a prominent role in Jack Kerouac's Beat novels, not to mention Allen Ginsberg's poetry, and JG Ballard's The Kindness of Women. He's been the subject of numerous biographies (most recently Scientologist! William S Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' – which would really give our lawyers something to think about…), as well as numerous films, songs, and, of course, band names.
I'm open to all suggestions for Burroughs related ephemera – so long as there's a book we can get stuck into somewhere along the line. Nominations will be gathered together and pulled out of a hat, as is the custom.
Meanwhile, in case you want evidence of the power of Burroughs' intellect have a look at this Paris Review interview. And if you want proof of the enduring power of his beneficent influence, here's his advice for young people.