An Essential Punk Literature Reading List

It doesn’t take name-dropping Black Flag or writing a scene where a character gets her first mohawk to know that the book you’re reading is influenced in some way or another by the punk scene. Jeff Jackson’s mesmerizing debut, Mira Corpora, which reads like some cross between Bruno Schulz and the backstories of random characters from Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia, is that kind of book. One perfect example comes in the forth chapter, “My Life in the City,” where Jackson’s writes about an undeniably punk experience:

When we reach the deteriorating tenement, we linger on the street until the homeless couple turns the corner, then scurry down the steps to the basement. The kids call this “the squat,” but it’s an actual apartment Lena inherited from some relative or another. She remove the key pinned inside her eloquently distressed wool sweater and unlocks the door.

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Of course, the Mekons quote that opens up the first chapter also helps lead us to the conclusion that, at some point in his life, Jackson probably had some connection to punk in some way, and it no doubt makes its way into his eerie first book. But it’s the overarching sensibility that also puts Mira Corpora in a unique group of books that can only be dubbed Punk Lit. 

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Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker

If you haven’t been fortunate enough to read any works by the late Kathy Acker, this novel, with its anti-narrative and use of collage, proves that she was the true heir to William S. Burroughs. Start with this challenging and disturbing feminist novel, which was a huge influence on the riot grrrl movement.

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Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus

There are punk zines, and then there’s Cometbus. This anthology, which cherry picks from the first 43 issues of Aaron Cometbus’ zine has plenty of flyers from early Green Day shows and scene-report type things, but the real draw is the writing; there is no better chronicler of punk from 1981-onward than Cometbus. Get this, then go and seek out every issue that you can. 

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Frisk, Dennis Cooper

Challenging and unsettling, Cooper’s work sits neatly next to Kathy Acker’s as part of a new type of writing that redefined what we call transgressive literature. This novel, which has been described as exploring “the ecstasy and horror of being human,” is a good way to settle into the work of this unsettling genius who started out by publishing a zine, Little Caesar, in the late 1970s. 

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Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary,  Lydia Lunch

Here’s the thing about Lydia Lunch: people are straight-up afraid of her. Example: Joe Rogan.

And we probably should be a little frightened by the lead singer for bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, who also starred in some of Richard Kern’s nastiest films, because Lydia Lunch could probably beat up any of us.

But beyond physical violence, Lunch’s books, specifically Paradoxia, with its frank and oftentimes disturbing scenes of sex and violence, is Lunch at her best. This book will feel you leaving dirty, and you will be all the better for it. 

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Neuromancer, William Gibson

We would be remiss not to mention one of the earliest and most beloved works that falls under the category of cyberpunk, but when you think about what else was going on in 1984, when the first installment of Gibson’s “Sprawl trilogy” came out, Neuromancer also starts to fit into the weird space occupied by films like Repo Man and the Slash Records catalog. Inspired by the punk music that came before them, these works were perfectly suited for a brave new dystopia. 

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Zazen, Vanessa Veselka

I once described Vanessa Veselka’s novel to someone by saying it’s basically the literary equivalent to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I don’t know how else I could describe this tale of the world finally going to total shit. 

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Please Take Me off the Guest List, Zachary Lipez, Nick Zinner, and Stacy Wakefield

Buy this for Nick Zinner’s photos and Stacey Wakefield’s beautiful layout; stay for your introduction to the essays of Zachary Lipez, whose blend of always clever, sometimes self-effacing, often bleak storytelling is entirely original — not to mention addictive.

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The Gospel of Anarchy, Justin Taylor

In Taylor’s debut novel, we find David, down and out in a Florida college town towards the end of the 20th century, giving up on normal life and hanging around an anarchist punk squat/cult known as Fishgut.

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The Loom of the Ruin, Sam McPheeters

If you’ve been fortunate enough to follow what McPheeters has been doing all these years, including bands like Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project, great zines, and articles for publications from the Village Voice to Vice, you know he has a unique view of the world, and it filters out into his writing in glorious ways. This novel is sort of the pinnacle of all of that; his strange vision all melted down into one crazy heap of words. 

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A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

The most popular and successful book on this list, there isn’t much I can say about Egan’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction- and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel outside of telling this story: I once passed a crust punk with her really friendly-looking pitbull off of 1st Avenue and 3rd Street in the East Village. She was making fun of people and asking them for change at the same time, and it looked like she was going to walk away with a pretty decent chunk of change from her work.

“Hey beardo, got a quarter,” she yelled at me.

I fished around in my pocket, because when you directly address me like that, I’m more than likely to reply.

“Thanks,” she said as I chucked at least a dollar’s worth of change from my pockets into the plastic jack-o’-lantern she was using to store her money.

I started to walk away from our transaction, but something caught my eye.

“Are you enjoying that?” I asked pointing to a beat-to-hell copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad.

“I fucking love it,” she told me.I’ve read it three times.”