The Book of the Beats has some great high points (Brian Hassett and John Swenson's pieces on how the Beats impacted and were impacted by pop culture), and some utterly ridiculous low-points (Mike McClure's seven page tribute to himself). All of it taken together is an interesting read, but there can be too much of a good thing. For instance, I could care less about how the Beats "ruined" Johnny Depp's life. And Graham Parker? It seems that George-Warren solicited contributions from anyone who had ever read On the Road or felt "transformed" upon their first reading of Howl.
Having said that, the book does possess many good qualities. As in, the first section that attempts to establish the Beats as a cultural phenomenon that continues to have a lasting impact. Some of the assertions are a stretch, such as McClure identifying the Beats as the "literary arm of the Environmentalist movement." Laugh at that statement, then move on to Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones's strong pieces about the roles of the Beat women. The section is rounded off with John Tytell's piece which gives a solid historical context for the Beat movement.
The sections devoted to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs border on overkill--especially the faithful reprinting of Rolling Stone's transcript of a conversation between Burroughs and David Bowie. But these sections do have some gems--Burrough's piece on Kerouac firmly dismisses the myth that Kerouac's books are just autobiographies with the names changed, Barry Alfonso's 1994 interview with Ginsberg, and Robert Palmer's interview with Burroughs and Brion Gysin. There are really no revelations about Kerouac or Burroughs here. And for anyone who has studied much about Ginsberg, the egocentrism displayed in his interviews is certainly not a surprise. What is shocking, though, is how some of these contributers seem to worship their subject--as in Mikal Gilmore writing on the effects of Ginsberg's poems: "Perhaps only Martin Luther King Jr.'s brave and costly quest had a more genuinely liberating impact upon the realities of modern history..." Comparing Ginsberg to MLK? Come on.
Perhaps the most poignant piece in the collection was written by Daniel Pinchbeck, the son of Joyce Johnson. His "Children of the Beats" is a startling look at the descendants of some of the core figures in Beat lore. He delves into the pressure of being a Beat child with a journalistic tone. The reader might feel more pain for these people if Pinchbeck hadn't presented them as average people attempting to live their own lives, distinct from their famous parents.
Other strong and unexpected contributions are Stephen Davis's piece on Brion Gysin and both pieces devoted to Robert Frank--these men were key figures in the Beat sub-strata and are often overlooked.
Perhaps my biggest criticism of this book is that is does not focus enough on the true impact of the Beats on culture. There is a half-hearted attempt to link the Beats to the Hippies of the late sixties, but I've never been one to buy into that notion--other than acknowledging Ginsberg's role in advancing the Hippie cause. This collection would have been well-served by a few pieces from sociology experts--people who could actually draw clear lines from the Beat movement to today's world by citing more examples than "Ginsberg recorded with Paul McCartney" and "Kurt Cobain and Patti Smith count Burroughs as a strong influence." (What do you expect from Rolling Stone, right?) No doubt the Beats impacted artists like Bob Dylan, but what does that mean to the rest of us?
In the closing paragraph of Joyce Johnson's quid pro quo with Daniel Pinchbeck (pg. 394), Pinchbeck states "...it is necessary to resist nostalgia to a certain extent. The cultural situation changes constantly, and suddenly out of what seems like a total void, who knows if a surprising Renaissance won't bloom?" While this is a valid observation, it also points out a glaring contradiction: This collection is 90% glorified nostalgia. Let's hope those who are truly interested in both preserving the Beat legacy and sparking a new Renaissance will find sources more substantial to fill the void.