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.

Vis­it all 500+ William S. Bur­roughs books cov­ers here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Visu­al Art of William S. Bur­roughs: Book Cov­ers, Por­traits, Col­lage, Shot­gun Art & More

Loli­ta Book Cov­ers: 100+ Designs From 37 Coun­tries (Plus Nabokov’s Favorite Design)

Hear a Great Radio Doc­u­men­tary on William S. Bur­roughs Nar­rat­ed by Iggy Pop

83 Years of Great Gats­by Book Cov­er Designs: A Pho­to Gallery

600+ Cov­ers of Philip K. Dick Nov­els from Around the World: Greece, Japan, Poland & Beyond

Down­load 650 Sovi­et Book Cov­ers, Many Sport­ing Won­der­ful Avant-Garde Designs (1917–1942)

The Art of the Book Cov­er Explained at TED

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.

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