Books Hunter S. Thompson Thinks You Should Read
No fear or loathing here. These are the books that the good doctor personally suggested to his friends and family.
“I don’t advocate drugs and whiskey and violence and rock and roll, but they’ve always been good to me.”
The quip above, written by Hunter S. Thompson for Playboy shortly before his death in 2005, captures what many readers best knew him for and still remember. Beginning with the publication of Hell’s Angels in 1966, rising with “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in 1970 and reaching its zenith in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the second part of which was published by Rolling Stone 43 years ago this month, Thompson forged a lasting persona for himself as an outlaw journalist. It was astonishingly successful — his books, film adaptations and general cultural influence are all testaments to that — but it came largely at the expense of his first love: novel-writing.
Although readers today associate Thompson most with his drug-and-booze-fueled antics, he was in fact a committed literary stylist, especially early on. As a child growing up in Louisville in the ‘50s, he would type out his favorite novels, particularly The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, over and over again to get a feel for the words. This aspiration, melded with his initially frustrated writing career, made Thompson a harsh literary critic, if not a bit of a dick. An example:
“I have tonight begun reading a stupid, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur, and I would give a ball to wake up tomorrow on some empty ridge with a herd of beatniks grazing in the clearing about 200 yards below the house. And then to squat with the big boomer and feel it on my shoulder with the smell of grease and powder and, later, a little blood.”
That comes from a letter by Thompson to a friend in 1962. Throughout his personal correspondence (published during his lifetime in two volumes,) Thompson digs into contemporary writers and classics with his trademark venom, but he also occasionally recommends a book to an acquaintance — and then he gushes.
These are a few of the reads Thompson recommended before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, before he had become an outlaw journalist, back when he was just a desperate Southern gentleman:
To Knopf Editor Angus Cameron:
“Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach. Facts are lies when they’re added up, and the only kind of journalism I can pay much attention to is something like Down and Out in Paris and London. …But in order to write that kind of punch-out stuff you have to add up the facts in your own fuzzy way, and to hell with the hired swine who use adding machines.”
To high school friend Joe Bell:
“To say what I thought of The Fountainhead would take me more pages than I like to think I’d stoop to boring someone with. I think it’s enough to say that I think it’s everything you said it was and more. Naturally, I intend to read Atlas Shrugged. If it’s half as good as Rand’s first effort, I won’t be disappointed.”
To Knopf Editor Angus Cameron:
“If history professors in this country had any sense they would tout the book as a capsule cram course in the American Dream. I think it is the most American novel ever written. I remember coming across it in a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro; the title in Portuguese was O Grande Gatsby, and it was a fantastic thing to read it in that weird language and know that futility of the translation. If Fitzgerald had been a Brazilian he’d have had that country dancing to words instead of music.”
To the author, Wolfe:
“I owe the National Observer in Washington a bit of money for stories paid and never written while I was working for them out here, and the way we decided I’d work it off was book reviews, of my own choosing. Yours was one; they sent it to me and I wrote this review, which they won’t print. I called the editor (the kulture [SIC] editor) the other day from the middle of a Hell’s Angels rally at Bass lake and he said he was sorry and he agreed with me etc. but that there was a “feeling” around the office about giving you a good review. … Anyway, here’s the review, and if it does you any good in the head to know that it caused the final severance of relations between myself and the Observer, then at least it will do somebody some good. As for myself I am joining the Hell’s Angels and figure I should have done it six years ago.”
To Viking Editor Robert D. Ballou:
“Last week I read two fairly recent first novels — Acrobat Admits (Harold Grossman), and After Long Silence (Robert Gutwillig) — and saw enough mistakes to make me look long and hard at mine [Prince Jellyfish]. Although I’m already sure the Thompson effort will be better than those two, I’m looking forward to the day that I can say it will be better than Lie Down in Darkness. When that day comes, I will put my manuscript in a box and send it to you.”
To his mother, Virginia Thompson:
“As a parting note — I suggest that you get hold of a book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson. I had intended to go into a detailed explanation of what I have found out about myself in the past year or so, but find that I am too tired. However, after reading that book, you may come closer to understanding just what lies ahead for your Hunter-named son. I had just begun to doubt some of my strongest convictions when I stumbled upon that book. But rather than being wrong, I think that I just don’t express my rightness correctly.”
To freelance journalist Lionel Olay:
“Now that you’ve taken personal journalism about as far as it can go, why don’t you read Singular Man and then get back to the real work? … I’m not dumping on you, old sport — just giving the needle. I just wish to shit I had somebody within 500 miles capable of giving me one. It took Donleavy’s book to make me see what a fog I’ve been in.”
To Norman Mailer in 1961:
“This little black book of Miller’s is something you might like. If not, or if you already have it, by all means send it back. I don’t mind giving it away, but I’d hate to see it wasted.”
To Mailer in ‘65:
“Somewhere in late 1961 or so I sent you a grey, paperbound copy of Henry Miller’s The World of Sex, one of 1000 copies printed “for friends of Henry Miller,” in 1941. You never acknowledged it, which didn’t show much in the way of what California people call “class,” but which was understandable in that I recall issuing some physical threats along with the presentation of what they now tell me is a collector’s item. … And so be it. I hope you have the book and are guarding it closely. In your old age you can sell it for whatever currency is in use at the time.”
For more reading recommendations from the good doctor, check out both his collections of letters: The Proud Highway and Fear and Loathing in America.