It’s not every day that you get a chance to peek at a reading syllabus of sorts from one of the great American authors of the 20th century. In 1940, a young Jack Kerouac (then 18) scrawled a reading list on a piece of notebook paper. The titles included span eras and cultures, from the Bible to James Joyce, and offer a rare glimpse at the works of literature that were molding his teenage mind.

In two years' time, Kerouac would join the United States Merchant Marine and then the Navy, where he’d write his first attempt at a novel, The Sea Is My Brother—a work he later described as a “crock [of s--t] as literature.” We all have to start somewhere.


1. Indian Scripture
2. Chinese [Scriptures]
3. Old and New Testament
4. Gibbon and Plutarch
5. Homer (again)
6. Shakespeare (again)
7. Wolfe (always)

“Finnegan’s Wake”
“Outline of History” (again)
Thoreau and Emerson ([again])
Joseph Conrad
Proust’s “Remembrance”
Dante (again)

[h/t Bibliophilia]

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!

This piece originally ran in 2015 and has been updated for 2021.