Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beat Atlas Book Review

One of the very best parts of having written The Beat Handbook and maintaining this blog is that City Lights Books - the pre-eminent Beat Generation book publisher on the planet - sees fit to send me relevant books for review. It's one big reason I love going to the post office!

Most recently, Beat Atlas: A State by State Guide to the Beat Generation in America by Bill Morgan, appeared in my mailbox. As the title suggests, it's a Beat tour guide for the whole country (supplementing City Lights' Beat tour guides to San Francisco and New York). I can see using this great resource in two ways. First, you can take it with you whenever you travel in the States. I plan to do that. Second, when you want to go somewhere but aren't sure where, you can use it as a destination-planning guide. I plan to do that as well. For example, right here in Maine are four places with beat connections: Brunswick, Northeast Harbor, Old Orchard Beach, and Orono. As with all entries, there is a description of why each particular location has a beat connection. Brunswick, Maine is home to Bowdoin College, where Lucien Carr attended (and was stalked there by David Kammerer). There are even cross-references to other entries. This particular one refers the reader to the Andover, Massachusetts entry for more details. I lived in Pennsylvania for most of my life, and the Commonwealth sports five entries: Feasterville (who knew?), Harrisburg (oh, yes, The Ghost of the Susquehanna), Muhlenberg, Philadelphia, and Swarthmore.

Even Little Rhody has beat connections: Newport and Providence. Naturally, San Francisco and New York aren't given all the detail possible since they enjoy dedicated beat tour guides. Denver, as you can imagine, has five-and-a-half pages of information. We learn that on one trip to Denver, Jack Kerouac hung out at Charlie Brown's Bar and Grill at 980 Grant Street, which is still in business. (Note to self: put that on the itinerary wish list.)

Another great feature of Beat Atlas is that it includes lots of pictures, some of which I don't remember seeing before, including early and later ones of various beat writers as well as locations (like the house at 34 Beaulieu Street in Lowell where Jack lived for a while). There are even a few pictures of Carl Solomon, to whom Ginsberg dedicated his epic poem, "Howl." I especially like the shot of Gary Snyder - sport-coated, turtle-necked, and pony-tailed - giving a reading.

Beat Atlas is all text and pictures: no maps. I like that because it saves on size and unnecessary clutter. It provides addresses, and it's easy enough to use the Internet or a GPS to get directions to a specific location. And even if an address isn't sufficient, part of Beat travel is the adventure, right? Another feature I like is all the historical information packed into such a small book. Did you know that Ginsberg worked as a spot welder for Eastern Gas and Fuel Association in the Brooklyn Navy Yard? Or that Timothy Leary was a cadet at West Point? There are interesting connections, too, like the irony of Jack writing about necking with a girl all the way to Indianapolis in On The Road and then the owner of the Indianapolis Colts buying the original Road scroll for over $2 million. Well, maybe that's not so ironic (my analysis, not Morgan's), but it's sure interesting.

There's a useful bibliography for additional reading, and a fairly extensive index (Kerouac has over 100 entries in it) gives the reader another way to plan trips. For instance, if you're a Gary Snyder fan, you could check out any of his 30+ index entries, pick your destination, and go go go.

I absolutely love this book. It's quirky, interesting, and practical. This is a travel guide that you will pick up just to read, in addition to using it for finding Beat destinations to visit. Beat Atlas has my highest recommendation.

You can order a copy from City Lights Books. While you're at it, you might want to pick up a copy of The Beat Handbook. It's made to be a traveling companion as well.


Baltimore Colts fan said...

The NY and SF guides as compiled my Mr. Morgan were extremely well-done IMHO, complete with some very enlightening, entertaining, and often-hilarious stories.

So good, in fact, that it makes the purchase of his latest (as detailed above) a no-brainer.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Makes me want to run out and buy the NY and SF guides!