Growing up in the tough and brutal working-class streets of Liverpool was not always the kindest place for a sensitive soul like John Lennon. In fact, it hardened him quite drastically and certainly added to his tempestuous nature. The iconic Beatles star wasn’t always the floppy-haired loverboy with a sharp tongue that he was quickly publicised as.
In fact, Lennon spent most of his childhood escaping through the words and drawings of wonderful books. Here, we take a look through the various volumes of John Lennon’s library and get a glimpse into the literary world of one of the greats.
Lennon once revealed in an interview recorded just weeks before his untimely death at the hands of Mark Chapman in 1980, that his family in Liverpool weren’t necessarily equipped to fulfil the notions of the poetic genius Lennon was showing himself to be at a young age: “It was scary as a child, because there was nobody to relate to,” he would comment.
“Neither my auntie nor my friends nor anybody could ever see what I did,” Lennon added. “It was very, very scary and the only contact I had was reading about an Oscar Wilde or a Dylan Thomas or a Vincent van Gogh – all those books that my auntie had that talked about their suffering because of their visions. Because of what they saw, they were tortured by society for trying to express what they were.” It was a frightful piece of foreshadowing.
Lennon himself was an inspiring and engaging author in his own right. The budding musician, fortunately, was not deterred by his family’s reticence to read. Instead, Lennon decided to pursue another avenue of artistic prowess alongside his growing Beatles fame and write some interesting literature, using his knack for improvisation to guide him.
His first work, The Daily Howl, was brimming with absurdist comics and caricatures, poetry and prose, and was largely shared among high school chums. His first proper work was 1964’s John Lennon: In His Own Write which was filled with nonsensical prose and wordplay, all of which seemed to fit in with the singer’s style. It sold so well that he received another book deal just a year later.
Despite the success, writing books wasn’t something Lennon had originally bargained on. “There was never any real thought of writing a book,” he later said. “It was something that snowballed. If I hadn’t been a Beatle I wouldn’t have thought of having the stuff published; I would have been crawling around broke and just writing it and throwing it away. I might have been a Beat poet!”
It was an avenue or artistry which involved Lennon’s internal navigation and saw his work as an author affect his work in The Beatles. “I’d have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market, and I didn’t consider them (the lyrics or anything) to have any depth at all; to express myself I would write A Spaniard in the Works or In His Own Write, the personal stories which were expressive of my personal emotions. Then I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively.”
As much as his own work as a writer could influence his music, Lennon also found influence from other authors would shape the sounds of The Beatles. Talking about the notion of penning Beatles’ hit ‘I am the Walrus’, Lennon said: “I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days. It’s from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ To me, it was a beautiful poem.”
He added: “It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles’ work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realised that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it? (singing) ‘I am the carpenter…’”
A less fantastical and more contemporary source of inspiration for Lennon as a teenager and onwards into adulthood was his love of the Beat poets of New York. From Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, Lennon massively admired the spirit and soul of the movement’s work. Ginsberg gets a shoutout in ‘Give Peace A Chance’ while William S. Burroughs is featured on the famous cover of Beatles record, Sgt. Pepper — it’s even rumoured Lennon was the man behind changing the band’s original moniker from ‘The Beetles’ to ‘The Beatles’ after being inspired by the group.
Ginsberg recalls, on meeting with Lennon before his death: “I was passing by Dakota Apartments last month, phoned upstairs and visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono for an hour…[Lennon] said he was lying sleepless one night listening to WBAI earphones and heard someone reciting a long poem, he thought it was Dylan till he heard the announcer say it was Ginsberg reading ‘Howl’…said he’d never read it or understood it before, his eye’d seen the page but, ‘I can’t read anything, I can’t get anything from print’, but once hearing it aloud he suddenly understood, he said, why Dylan had often mentioned me to him, and suddenly realised what I was doing and dug it.”
With all the sensitivity, poetry, prose and percussion in everything Lennon writes, it is easy to see the influence on his life the books below had on him. They cultivated creativity, promoted potential and matured his every musical madness.
Below is a list of these works and writers which across interviews and snippets of conversations Lennon has either been involved with or loved deeply. So, how many have you read?
John Lennon’s favourite books:
- Ronald Searle (illustrations)
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Curiosities of Natural History by Francis T. Buckland
- Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
- Just William by Richmal Crompton
- Howl by Allen Ginsberg
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
- On The Road by Jack Kerouac
- The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary
- Grapefruit by Yoko Ono
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Complete Tales and Poems by Edgar Allen Poe
- Born Under a Bad Sign by Tony Palmer & Ralph Steadman
- Forty-One Years In India by Field Marshal Lord Roberts
- Major Works by Jonathan Swift
- Major Works by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas
- I Am Also a You by Jay Thompson
- Writings and Drawings by James Thurber
- Complete Works by Oscar Wilde