Anthony Bourdain's favourite songs
Credit: James Cann

From Orwell to Burroughs: Anthony Bourdain’s 39 favourite books of all time

The late great Anthony Bourdain was a masterful chef, a music lover and a beguiling TV host, however, his heart was that of a writer’s. Whether he was travelling across the globe or deep in the depths of New York City, Bourdain usually had a book in his hand, his eyes buried in the text and consuming the words like he did so many steaming bowls of sustenance, continually acknowledged their equal standing for survival

Speaking with New York Times about his reading habits the rock ‘n’ roll chef described himself as “a fast, voracious and precocious reader as a child [who] loved stories of adventure and lurid horror.” As he grew older and his tastes more varied, Bourdain immersed himself in subjects like the history of man, spy novels and captivating biographies alongside your usual heavy-bottom scripts.

As collated by Radical Reads, throughout his short time in the limelight, Bourdain was routinely asked about his favourite books and also, through his various social media channels, provided some insights into the books he was reading, as he was reading them. This is what Bourdain brought to proceedings, and in turn, his writing, a human connection that arrived with such immediacy one is instantly warmed and welcomed by his persona. He did this by subverting the role of the author, whether on the page or on TV, levelled himself against his audience, proving with an authenticity that he’s truly was a friend offering advice.

It’s a similar style show in the list of his favourite books of all time which you can find below. It’s an essential reading list for any Bourdain fan but also any true book lover because the titles picked by the chef are all of premium quality. As one might expect.

The chef was also a visceral writer. Bourdain’s gut-punch style of gonzo journalism was a welcome refresher among the travel channel set of straight-suited limpets that you never wanted anywhere near your hotel. Bourdain immersed you in the gritty culture of his surroundings, it’s undoubtedly something he picked up from two of the authors mentioned in the list below. While, of course, the Grandaddy of Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a clear foundational stone in Bourdain’s style, it is William S. Burrough’s Junky which arguably aligns more intently.

Of the classic cook, Bourdain is clear to examine his own difficulties with substance abuse and how Burroughs had become an idol for him, he described Junky as “filthy, dangerous, depraved groundbreaking. And funny as Hell. Not an ideal role model, I grant you. But a writer I very much looked up to and wanted, for better or worse, to emulate.”

Another writer that clearly took Bourdain’s fancy was Graham Greene, whose slick style likely offered a way of slipping into new worlds for the persistently travelling chef. About the book, The Quiet American, Bourdain said: “Drama, romance, tragic history in SE Asia? I’m there! I re-read it frequently. Particularly when visiting Vietnam.” He also picked Travels with my Aunt and Ways of Escape by Greene, the latter he said is “a book I’ve read many times but keep coming back to.”

As well as novels, Bourdain makes time for two other types of books, naturally, the travel side of life is catered for (which usually includes the catering side too) but it was his love of history and historical figures that also captures our attention. Picking George Orwell out as one such figure he says, “The font of all wisdom. Orwell is right about nearly everything.”

Bourdain naturally includes several cook book, for want of a better word, and cited A.J. Libeling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris as the greatest of all time, saying: “‘Food writing’ at its very, very best. Never surpassed. What all writing about eating should be.” If you would have trusted Bourdain to cook you a meal or offer you a good glass of wine, then we’d suggest you listen up to his book suggestions too. If you do your mind will be fat, full and happy.

Anthony Bourdain’s favourite books:

  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
  • Crash by J.G. Ballard
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  • Collected Works by Milton Caniff
  • Smiley’s People by John le Carré
  • L.A. Son by Ray Choi
  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals / Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes by Melanie Dunea
  • Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture — Matt Goulding
  • The Wind in the Willows — Kenneth Grahame
  • The Quiet American — Graham Greene
  • Travels With My Aunt — Graham Greene
  • Ways of Escape — Graham Greene
  • Prune — Gabrielle Hamilton
  • The Friends Of Eddie Coyle — George V. Higgins
  • Ripley’s Game — Patricia Highsmith
  • Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches From a Blue Plastic Table — Graham Holliday
  • Agents of Innocence — David Ignatius
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings — Marlon James
  • Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir — Padma Lakshmi
  • Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris — A.J. Liebling
  • Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story — David Maraniss
  • Ashenden: Or the British Agent — Somerset Maugham
  • Shanghai Factor — Charles McCarry
  • You’re Better Than Me — Bonnie McFarlane
  • Wd~50: The Cookbook — Peter Meehan & Wylie Dufresne
  • On Boxing — Joyce Carol Oates
  • Essays — George Orwell
  • Politics and the English Language — George Orwell
  • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket — Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Devil All the Time — Donald Ray Pollock
  • True Grit — Charles Portis
  • Something to food about: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs — Questlove
  • Adios, Motherfucker — Michael Ruffino
  • American Dream Machine — Matthew Spektor
  • Treasure Island — Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Hunter S. Thompson
  • The Man Who Lost The War — W. T. Tyler
  • Rogue’s March — W. T. Tyler
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