200,000 Years of Staggering Human Population Growth Shown in an Animated Map

Last night, during a talk on his new book Raising the Floor, longtime labor leader and current senior fellow at Columbia University Andy Stern told the story of a king and a chessmaster engaged in pitched battle. “If you win,” said the overconfident king, “you may have anything you desire.” Lo, the chessmaster wins the game, but being a humble man asks the king only to provide him with some rice. The king smugly agrees to his eccentric conditions: he must place a grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, then double the amount of each successive square. Once he reaches the middle, the king stops and has the chessmaster executed. The request would have cost him his entire kingdom and more.

Stern used the story to illustrate the exponential growth of technology, which now advances at a rate we can neither confidently predict nor control. Something very similar has happened to the human population in the past two-hundred years, as you can see illustrated in the video above from the American Museum of Natural History.

Evolving some 200,000 years ago in Sub-Saharan Africa, and migrating across the globe some 100,000 years ago, modern humans remained relatively few in number for several thousand years. That is, until the technological breakthrough of agriculture. “By AD 1,” the video text tells us, “world population reached approximately 170 million people.”

After a very rapid expansion, the numbers rose and fell slowly in the ensuing centuries as wars, disease, and famines decimated populations. World population reached only 180 million by the year 200 AD, then dwindled through the Middle Ages, only picking up again slowly around 700. Throughout this historiographic model of population growth, the video infographic provides helpful symbols and legends that chart historic centers like the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty, and show major world events like the Bubonic plague.

Then we reach the world-shaking disruptions that were the birth of Capitalism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, when “modern technology and medicine bring faster growth.”

That’s quite the understatement. The growth, like the grains of rice on the chessboard, proceeded exponentially, reaching 1 billion people around 1800, then exploding to over 7 billion today. As the yellow dots—each representing a node of 1 million people—take over the map, the video quickly becomes an alarming call to action. While the numbers are leveling off, and fertility has dropped, “if current trends continue,” we’re told, “global population will peak at 11 billion around 2100.” Peak numbers could be lower, or substantially higher, depending on the predictive value of the models and any number of unknowable variables.

Andy Stern’s research has focused on how we build economies that support our massive global population—as machines stand poised in the next decade or so to edge millions of blue and white collar workers out of an already precarious labor market. The American Museum of Natural History asks some different, but no less urgent questions that take us even farther into the future. How can the planet’s finite, and dwindling, resources, with our current abuse and misuse of them, support such large and growing numbers of people?

It may take another technological breakthrough to mitigate the damage caused by previous technological breakthroughs. Or it may take an enormous, revolutionary political shift. In either case, the “choices we make today” about family planning, consumption, environmental regulation, and conservation “affect the future of our species—and all life on Earth.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Organization Guru Marie Kondo’s Tips for Dealing with Your Massive Piles of Unread Books (or What They Call in Japan “Tsundoku”)

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is Britain’s number-one best seller at the moment, and it’s about punctuation, and no, I don’t get it either,” writes Nick Hornby in his February 2004 “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column for the Believer. What explains how Lynne Truss’ guide to the proper use of commas, semicolons, and dashes became such a publishing phenomenon those thirteen holiday seasons ago? Hornby theorizes that everyone had someone in mind to give a copy, whether a punctuation pedant themselves or someone whose skills in the area could use a sharpening, ultimately predicting that “in the end the book will sell a quarter-million copies, but only two hundred people will own them.”

Something similar may have happened with Marie Kondo‘s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, first published in Japan in 2011 and in English in 2014. Now people all over the world have read it to learn the simple secrets of Kondo’s “KonMari method” of decluttering — or have given it to friends and relatives they see as badly in need of such a method. Still, all but the most ascetic of us occasionally bend to the hoarder’s instinct in certain areas of life, and it would surely surprise none of us to find out that Open Culture readers have, on occasion, been known to let their bookshelves run over.

Hence the popularity of Jonathan Crow’s post on tsundoku, the Japanese word for the unread books that pile up unread in our homes. Japan, a land of small domestic spaces but a great deal of stuff, has paid special attention to the problem of hoarders and the gomi yashiki (or “trash mansions”) in which they sometimes end up. Some observers, like photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki, celebrate the ever-present threat of total disorder; others, like Kondo, go on not just to attain guru status by selling books, but then to show fans how to tidy up all those books they’ve accumulated.

“Many people say that books are one thing they just can’t part with regardless of whether they are avid readers or not,” Kondo writes, “but the real problem is actually the way in which they part with them.” The way she offers requires adherence to certain practices and beliefs, including the following:

Take your books off the shelves. Kondo recommends–often against the objections of her clients–first de-shelving all their books and piling them on the floor (that is, the books that haven’t spent their entire lives in such a state). “Like clothes or any other belongings, books that have been left untouched on the shelf for a long time are dormant. Or perhaps I should say that they’re ‘invisible.'” Possibly drawing on what she learned from five years spent as an attendant maiden at a Shinto shrine, she renders them visible again, as you can see in the video above, “by physically moving them, exposing them to air and making them ‘conscious.'”

Make sure to touch each one. Only with your books conscious can you “take them in your hand one by one and decide whether you want to keep or discard each one. The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.” Not when you read it (starting to read or even opening any of them can, she warns, derail the entire project) but when you touch it.

“Sometime” means “never.” We all own books we tell ourselves we’ll get around to one day (a habit which must have led Hornby to rigorously separate “Books Read” from mere “Books Bought” in his column), but Kondo suggests that the accumulation of books with only an intent to read them in the non-immediate future lessens the impact of the books you do read. “Timing is everything,” she writes. “The moment you first encounter a book is the right time to read it. To avoid missing that moment, I recommend you keep your collection small.”

Lithub’s Summer Brennan recently wrote up her own experience of weeding out her personal library the KonMari way. Brennan breaks the do-not-open rule and finds letters, lists, tickets (both flight and traffic), photos, bills, receipts, and even a high-school hall pass stuffed between their pages. Contra Kondo, she argues that our books “are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts. They are mementos, which [Kondo] cautions readers not to even attempt to contemplate getting rid of until the very last.”

Some of the books we own may spark joy, in other words, but almost all of them spark a range of other feelings besides. Even so, the holiday season having come upon us again, we’ve got no choice but to make at least a little room on our shelves — or our floors — to accommodate the new books we’ll no doubt receive as gifts. Farewell, then, to all those extra copies of bestselling punctuation guides. Only after they’ve gone will we see about breathing some life into the volumes to which we’ve grown more deeply attached. After all, a year’s end, as many a writer knows, provides the ideal time for reflection.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Truman Capote Narrates “A Christmas Memory,” a 1966 TV Adaptation of His Autobiographical Story

It’s fruitcake weather, so bust out your hankies.

You’ll need them by the end of this 1966 television adaptation of Truman Capote’s autobiographical 1956 story, “A Christmas Memory,” above.

As holiday specials go, it’s blessedly free of razzle dazzle. Capote’s Depression-era Christmases in rural Alabama were short on tinsel and long on windfall pecans.

Combined with flour, sugar, dried fruit, and some hard-purchased whiskey, these gifts of nature yielded delicious cakes the main characters send to a long list of recipients ranging from FDR to a young man whose car broke down in front of their house, who snapped the only photograph of the two of them together.

The nostalgia may feel a bit thick at times. Both the story and the hour-long adaptation are a love letter to an eccentric, much older cousin, Nanny Rumbley Faulk, known as Sook. She was part of the household of distant relations where Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae, spent a portion of her childhood, and on whom she later dumped the 3-year-old Truman.

Sook was “the only stable person” in his life, Capote told People magazine thirty years after her death.

And according to Capote’s aunt, Marie Rudisill, “the only person that Sook ever cared anything about was Truman.”

Her interests, while not in keeping with those of a lady of her time, place, race, and class, held enormous appeal for a lonely little boy with few playmates his own age. Believing in ghosts, taming hummingbirds and curing warts with an “old-time Indian cure” are just a few of Sook’s hobbies he mentions in the story, wherein her only name is “my friend.” She is:

small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable–not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid.

Actress Geraldine Page, then 43 and a favorite of Capote’s contemporary, playwright Tennessee Williams, imbued the “sixty-something” Sook with wide eyes and wild hair.

But the real star of the show is Capote himself as narrator. That famous nasal whine sets his “Christmas Memory” apart from more golden-throated holiday voiceover work by Burl Ives, Greer Garson, and Fred Astaire. It also cuts through the treacle, as Bart Simpson would say.

You can find “A Christmas Memory” in this collection.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Noam Chomsky & Harry Belafonte Speak on Stage for the First Time Together: Talk Trump, Klan & Having a Rebellious Heart

Noam Chomsky, now 88 years old, made his career studying linguistics at MITHarry Belafonte, 89, became the “King of Calypso,” popularizing Caribbean music in the 1950s. Yes, the two men come from different worlds, but they share something important in common–a long commitment to social justice and activism. Belafonte used his fame to champion the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., and also helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. Chomsky protested against the Vietnam War, putting his career on the line, and has since become one of America’s leading voices of political dissent.

On Monday, these two figures appeared onstage for the first time together. Speaking at Riverside Church in NYC, before a crowd of 2,000 people, Chomsky and Belafonte took stock of where America stands after the election of Donald Trump. Naturally, neither man looks forward to what Trump has to bring. But they’re not as glum about the future as many other voters on the left. Chomsky especially reminds us that America has made great strides since 1960. The United States is a far more civilized country overall. And it’s much easier–not to mention less dangerous–to effect change today than a half century ago. It’s just a matter of getting out there and putting in the hard work. Meanwhile, Belafonte urges us to have a “rebellious heart” and leaves with this spirited reminder, “there’s still some ass kicking to be done!”

via @JohnCusack

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A Complete Reading of George Orwell’s 1984: Aired on Pacifica Radio, 1975

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Thus, with one of the best-known opening sentences in all English literature, begins George Orwell’s 1984, the novel that even 67 years after its publication remains perhaps the most oft-referenced vision of totalitarianism’s takeover of the modern Western world. Its fable-like power has, in fact, only intensified over the decades, which have seen it adapted into various forms for film, television, the stage (David Bowie even dreamed of putting on a 1984 musical), and, most often, the radio.

In recent years we’ve featured radio productions of 1984 from 1949, 1953, and 1965. On their program From the Vault, the Pacifica Radio network has just finished bringing out of the archives their own 1975 broadcast of the novel as read by morning-show host Charles Morgan.

Neither an all-out radio drama nor a straight-ahead audiobook-style reading, Pacifica’s 1984 uses sound effects and voice acting (some contributed by June Foray, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) to tell the story of Winston Smith and his inner and outer struggle with the repressive, all-seeing, language-distorting government of the superstate of Oceania (and the city of Airstrip One, formerly known as England) that surrounds him.

It makes sense that Pacifica would put the whole of Orwell’s dire novelistic warning on the airwaves. Founded just after World War II by a group of former conscientious objectors, its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, California, began broadcasting in the year of 1984‘s publication. As it grew over subsequent decades, the listener-funded Pacifica radio network gained a reputation for both its political engagement and its unconventional uses of the medium. (The Firesign Theater, the troupe that arguably perfected the art of the dense, multi-layered studio comedy album, got their start at Pacifica’s Los Angeles station KPFK.) Every era, it seems, produces its own 1984, and this one sounds as resonant in the 21st century — a time even Orwell dared not imagine — as it must have in the 1970s.

You can hear Part 1 of Pacifica’s 1984 at the top of the post, then follow these links to all ten parts on their Soundcloud page: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Horror Legend Boris Karloff Reads Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Premiering in 1966, the How the Grinch Stole Christmas TV special is a perfect (snow?) storm of creative folks working at the top of their game, with Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss providing the original 1956 book on which it’s based, Chuck Jones brilliantly interpreting Geisel’s own drawings in his own animated style, and making the Grinch’s long-suffering dog companion Max much more of a moral sidekick. It also gave us several musical numbers written by Albert Hague using Geisel’s lyrics.

And then there’s Boris Karloff, who narrates the special from beginning to end and supplies the Grinch’s voice. The English actor was best known in his early career for portraying Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy in the original Universal horror movies of the same names (and numerous sequels), and was a go-to character actor to play all sorts of nefarious criminals.

Later he would have a second career capitalizing on his horror pedigree, hosting anthology shows on television, and reading not just tales of Edgar Allan Poe on vinyl, but other not-so-scary children’s lit, like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Unlike Bela Lugosi, who suffered from being typecast his entire career post-Dracula, Karloff was able to make a good career from that breakthrough performance with good humor.

Karloff’s reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is pretty much taken straight from the animated TV special with some judicious editing and no commercials to get in the way. Side note: It is not Karloff but Thurl Ravenscroft singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” He was not credited in the original cartoon and Dr. Seuss profoundly apologized after the fact. The record would go on to earn Karloff a Spoken Word Grammy Award, the only such entertainment award he ever won. You can also listen to it on Spotify below:

If you have been feeling Grinchy in any way as we approach the holiday season, prepare to get your heart melted. This reading will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The Birth Control Handbook: The Underground Student Publication That Let Women Take Control of Their Bodies (1968)


Central to Michel Foucault’s theory of “governmentality” is what he calls “biopower,” an “explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.” Where debates over abortion and contraception generally coalesce around questions of religion and rights, the French theorist of power saw these issues as part of the bio-political struggle between “governing the self” and “governing others.”

Those who resist repressive biopower seize on the former definition of government. Take a very pointed example of both restrictive government biopower and creative resistance to the same: the 1968 Birth Control Handbook you see here, printed illegally by undergraduate students at Montreal’s McGill University. At the time of this text’s creation, notes Atlas Obscura, “under Canada’s Criminal Code, the dissemination, sale, and advertisement of birth control methods were all illegal, and abortion was punishable by life imprisonment.”

Despite facing the possible consequences of up to two years in prison, the McGill Student Society “sold millions of copies” of The Birth Control Handbook, writes Amanda Edgley, “in Canada and internationally.” Maya Koropatnitsky describes the tremendous social impact of the handbook:

Students at McGill as well as other Quebec campuses snapped up the first run of 17,000 copies. Due to its major success, the committee came out with a second issue of the handbook in 1969. This handbook is seen to be a major player in women’s liberation because it gave young women the knowledge and the ability to control reproductive functions.  

The handbook furthermore “mobilized women into forming meetings and groups to talk about consciousness-raising issues.” This informal education was invaluable for millions of women, who were “desperate for this information,” writes author Laura Kaplan, “so starved for information. You wanted it, in as much detail as you could get it, as graphic as it could be made.”


What the Canadian, and U.S., governments saw as sexually explicit will look to us like standard biology textbook illustrations, mundane charts and graphs, ordinary pictures of the birth experience, and tasteful, rather tame nude photos. Original authors Allan Feingold and Donna Cherniak “pored through books in the medical library,” Atlas Obscura writes, “and consulted medical advisors, compiling detailed information on topics like sexual intercourse, menstrual cycles, surgical abortion techniques (accompanied by prices and statistics), and how, exactly, to contact abortion providers.”

Illustrating another Foucauldian insight into the relationship between knowledge and power, not only were birth control methods under the strict control of mostly male doctors (and only available with permission from a husband), but even basic information on reproduction and birth control was difficult for most women to access. “To have all the information on the various methods of birth control in one place,” says Kaplan, “with pros and cons and what you needed to know about them, was a revelation.” Cherniak later remembered, “We joked that after the Bible, we were probably one of the most widely distributed publications in Canada.”


Both editions of the handbook addressed the controversial topic of abortion, citing the Canadian criminal code along the way. “Concerned with the problem of illegal abortion,” writes University of Ottowa professor Christabelle Sethna, “the council mandated the publication” of the handbook, which also “contained editorial commentary that took Western population-control experts to task for their racism and that supported women’s reproductive rights as a function of women’s liberation.” Sethna situates The Birth Control Handbook within a much larger Canadian movement, just “one of the ways,” writes Edgeley, “Canadians took control over their own bodies.” Its creators saw it as a means of changing the world. “Those were the years,” Cherniak says, “in which you thought you could do anything.”


Two years after the first print run of The Birth Control Handbook, the ur-text of feminist bio-politics, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. This book “became its own widely circulated women’s health text,” Atlas Obscura writes, “translated into 29 languages.” But while Our Bodies, Ourselves remains famous for its key role in spreading much-needed information about reproductive health, “its Canadian counterpart has been mostly forgotten.” The Birth Control Handbook gave millions of women the information they needed to govern their own lives. Rediscover the complete text of the first, 1968 edition and second, 1969 edition at the Internet Archive, where you can see a scan, read transcribed full text, and download PDF, Kindle, and other formats.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Infinity Minus Infinity Equals Pi: This Video Proves It

It sounds impossible. But it turns out that infinity minus infinity doesn’t necessarily equal zero. It can equal Pi, or 3.14159265359. Or so demonstrates the “Mathologer” in the video featured above.

In real life the Mathologer goes by the name of Burkard Polster, and he’s a math professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. You can check out more of his videos on YouTube here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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The Velvet Underground & Andy Warhol Stage Proto-Punk Performance Art: Discover the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966)

Punk rock, an artless proletarian sneer, a working-class revolt against bourgeois tastes, good manners, and corrupt systems of consumption. Right? Sure… and also pure performance art. Or do we forget that its forebears were avant-garde fringe artists: whether Iggy Pop onstage fighting a vacuum cleaner and blender and smearing peanut butter on himself, or Patti Smith reading her Rimbaud-inspired poetry at CBGB’s. And before rock critic Dave Marsh first used the word “Punk” (to describe Question Mark and the Mysterians)—before even Sgt. Pepper’s and the death of Jimi Hendrix—there came the Velvet Underground, protégés of Andy Warhol and dark psychedelic pioneers whose early songs were as punk rock as it gets.

Some evidence: a dog-eared copy of Please Kill Me, the “uncensored oral history of punk,” which begins with the Velvets and, specifically John Cale remembering 1965: “I couldn’t give a shit about folk music… The first time Lou Played ‘Heroin’ for me it totally knocked me out. The words and music were so raunchy and devastating…. Lou had these songs where there was an element of character assassination going on.” Now these days, everyone from the mayor of London to Shakespeare has been associated with punk, but maybe Lou Reed first defined its raunchiness and devastation back in the mid-sixties. And the performances of those songs were sheer art-rock spectacle, thanks to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or EPI.

Critic Wayne McGuire described these Exploding Plastic Inevitable performances, organized in 1966 and 1967, as “electronic: intermedia: total scale.” The Exploding Plastic Inevitable enveloped the Velvets in a dark, hazy, strobe-lit circus. Writer Branden Joseph describes it in detail:

… the Exploding Plastic Inevitable included three to five film projectors, often showing different reels of the same film simultaneously: a similar number of slide projectors, movable by hand so that their images swept the auditorium; four variable-speed strobe lights; three moving spots with an assortment of coloured gels; several pistol lights; a mirror ball hung from the ceiling and another on the floor; as many as three loudspeakers blaring different pop records at once; one or two sets by the Velvet Underground and Nico…

… and so on. “It doesn’t go together,” wrote Larry McCombs in a 1966 review, “But sometimes it does.” Warhol had attempted to stage similar events since 1963, with a short-lived band called the Druids, which included New York avant-garde composer La Monte Young (“the best drug connection in New York,” remembered Billy Name). Then Warhol met the Velvet Underground at the Café Bizarre, forced the broody Nico on them, and it suddenly came together. The new, Warhol-managed band first launched at filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ Cinémathèque theater. “Andy would show his movies on us,” remembers Reed, “We wore black so you could see the movie. But we were all wearing black anyway.”

As you can see in the 1966 film at the top of an EPI/Velvets performance, Reed’s proto-punk odes to intravenous drugs and sadomasochism provided the ideal soundtrack to Warhol’s celebrations of the tragically hip and pretty. The experience (at least as recreated by the Warhol Museum) put art student Karen Lue in mind of “Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, or a total work of art.” The film we experience here was shot by director Ronald Nameth at an EPI happening at Poor Richards in Chicago.

The overdubbed soundtrack blends recordings of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “European Son,” “It Was a Pleasure” from Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and live versions of “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs,” with John Cale on vocals. This particular happening featured neither Reed nor Nico, so Cale took the lead. Nonetheless, as Ubuweb writes, Nameth’s film “is an experience” fully representative of “Warhol’s hellish sensorium… the most unique and effective discotheque environment prior to the Fillmore/Electric Circus era.” The short “rises above a mere graphic exercise,” making “kinetic empathy a new kind of poetry” and a visual record of how punk arose as much from art-house theaters and galleries as it did from dive bars and garages.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

500+William S. Burroughs Book Covers from Across the Globe: 1950s Through the 2010s


William S. Burroughs has shown generations of readers that the written word can provide experiences they’d never before imagined. But to get to Burroughs’ written words, most of those readers have entered through his covers—or rather, through the covers that a host of publishers, all over the world and for over sixty years now—have considered sufficiently appealing representations of Burroughs’ daring, experimental, and not-especially-representable literary work. You can see over 500 of these efforts at the Burroughs page of beatbookcovers.com.


As mild-mannered as he could seem in person, Burroughs’ life and work, what with the drugs, the acquaintance with the homosexual underworld, and the reckless gunplay, has always attracted an air of the sordid and sensational. Publishers didn’t hesitate to exploit that, as we can see in the first edition of Burroughs’ first published work Junkie just above. Not only did it come out as a 35-cent mass-market two-in-one paperback, it promised the “confessions of an unredeemed drug addict,” and with that lurid illustration implied so much more besides. No matter how much readerly curiosity it piqued, how much of an artistic future could someone impulse-buying it at the drugstore have imagined for this “William Lee” fellow?


More curious readers have probably become Burroughs fans by picking up The Naked Lunch, his best-known novel but a more controversial and much less conventionally composed one than Junkie. This story of William Lee (now just the name of the protagonist, not an authorial pseudonym) and his substance-fueled odyssey through America, Mexico, Morocco, the fictional Annexia and far beyond has had many and varied visual representations, all of which try to convey how strenuously the text struggles against the strictures of traditional forms of writing. Sometimes, as in the 1986 U.K. edition from Paladin above, they resort to telling rather than just showing you that you hold in your hands “the book that blew ‘literature’ apart.”


Those of us who get deep into Burroughs’ work often do so because it transcends genre. Still, that hasn’t stopped marketing departments from trying to place him in one genre or another, or at least to sell certain of his books as if they belonged in one genre or another. The “Nova trilogy” with which Burroughs followed up Naked Lunch, has tended to appear on the science-fiction shelves of bookstores around the world, not completely without reason. Still, the sensibilities of the sci-fi world and Burroughs’ mind do clash somewhat, producing such intriguing results as the 1978 Japanese edition of Nova Express above.


Ultimately, the only image that reliably conveys the work of William S. Burroughs is the image of William S. Burroughs, which appears on the cover of this 1982 Picador William Burroughs Reader as well as many other books besides. As anyone who’s gone deep into his bibliography knows, the work and the man don’t come separately, but they’ll surely always remember the cover that led them into his world in the first place, whether it bore images subdued or sensationalistic, a design grimly real or forbiddingly abstract, or a proper warning about just what it was they were getting into.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.