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Gonzo Reading: A selection of Hunter S. Thompson’s 8 favourite books of all time


“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” — Hunter S. Thompson.

Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist, author and founder of the Gonzo journalism movement, enjoyed a feverish love for literature. While best known for his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s pioneering take on writing and reporting is what most consider his lasting legacy.

Switching from novelist to reporter, Thompson knew the power of his words and, even when he struggled with personal and health problems, he was always assured in his ability to revert back to the literature to transfer his artistry onto paper.

Throughout his life, Thompson wrote freely and, in his later years, began to offer out some of his personal thoughts on literature in a series of interviews. While his discussions would sometimes go off on a tangent as Thompson spilt out his wide-ranging opinions, the journalist (no doubt with a deadline ringing in his ears) would always revert to literature as a point of call in their conversations.

Below, Far Out has collected a number of Thompson’s recommendations which have been cited in numerous letters, interviews and more.

Hunter S. Thompson’s 8 favourite books:

1 – The World of Sex by Henry Miller

First up is Henry Miller, a figure who has been described by many as the most scandalous writer of the 20th century, describes his literary project.

There have been two separate takes from correspondence with Norman Mailer, the novelist, journalist, playwright, and filmmaker in which Thompson detailed admiration.

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,” Thompson said.

1965: “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,” said Thompson. “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.”

(Credit: Carl Van Vechten Photographs)

2 – The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Up next is The Fountainhead, the first taste of success for Russian-American author Ayn Rand when it was released in 1943.

Speaking to his childhood friend, Joe Bell, Thompson said of the book: “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.”

(Credit: Atlas Shrugged)

3 – Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell  

Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by the now-iconic author George Orwell, solidified the foundations for one of Britain’s most celebrated creatives.

Speaking to Angus Cameron, Knopf editor, Thompson said: “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“.

Adding: “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.”   

(Credit: BBC)

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Up next it’s a bonafide classic.

Recommended to Angus Cameron, the former editor of Knopf, Thompson said: “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.”

(Credit: The World’s Work)

5. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe

One of Thompson’s contemporaries, Tom Wolfe’s first collected book of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was originally published in 1965.

Taken from a letter to Tom Wolfe, the author of the book, Thompson said: “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 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”.

Thompson added: “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.”

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6. Singular Man by J. P. Donleavy

A Singular Man, the brilliant 1963 novel by J. P. Donleavy, was first published in Boston and arrived as the author’s second novel following the critically acclaimed The Ginger Man.

“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?” Thompson told Lionel Olay, a freelance journalist.

“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.”

(Credit: Open Media Ltd)

7. Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Written when he was just 26-years-old, William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness was met by critical acclaim when first released and established him as one of the great writers.

Thompson, speaking to Robert D. Ballou, editor of Viking, commented: “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.”

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8 – The Outsider by Colin Wilson

The Outsider, the 1956 book by English writer Colin Wilson, rounds off the list of Hunter S. Thompson’s reading list.

Wrote this to his mother, Virginia, about Wilson’s book, the Gonzo Godfather said: “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”.

Adding: “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.”

(Credit: Tom Ordelman)