"When the barbarians appear on the frontiers of a civilization it is a sign of crisis in that civilization. If the barbarians come, not with weapons of war but with the songs and ikons of peace, it is a sign that the crisis is one of a spiritual nature".
Gilmore Girls fans will recall that Rory was reading this book midway through the third season, telling Jess excitedly that it was a book by a Venice Beach beatnik about Venice Beach beatniks. She's right of course, but her description alone would be a little misleading. (Rory also mentions that Lipton's son James does those Actors Studio interviews. Quite funny to keep in mind while reading)....
The book is divided into four sections, but the last three could practically be collated into one. The first of the sections is mainly a collection of little scenes out of the lives of (actual) Venice Beach beatniks in the 1950's, as well as some of their biographies. These are amazing glimpses into the lives and culture of the beatniks that you couldn't really get anywhere else. Lipton is the perfect guide. He lived through similar (but, he contends, essentially very different) movements in the twenties, thirties, and forties, has written essential pieces in the canon of beatnik literature, and is an accepted member and even a sort of patriarch of these beatniks of Venice West. The first section is probably the best part of the book - Lipton is great at observing and describing these people, although at times you wish he would back away from the picture and let us decide what every little thing means. We finally get the chance to forget Lipton for awhile at the very end, where he has included some recordings he made of conversations among the group. This is my favorite part in the book - what they say is both funny and strange and a little unnerving.
The next three sections are essentially essays by Lipton on all aspects of beat culture - from rituals to marijuana to jazz to their feelings on the wars. He also talks extensively about the beatniks' reactions to the "squares", i.e., all the rest of us. It gets a little tiring. Most tiring of all is to read about all the many rules that cover what a true beatnik would or would not do. For example, "Opera the beat will not be found dead with...Opera is for squares." etc., etc.
However, Lipton does provide a very discerning look at American society, especially in the 50's, from the perspective of the ones who rejected it. This is an excellent resource, practically an essential one, for anyone who wishes to research beatnik culture, especially as it relates to the rest of American culture, including other subcultures. Lipton also looks at the twenties, thirties, and forties, and the similar movements then. He provides insights into other beatnik writings from the perspective of a true beatnik (was he? I couldn't say). If you've been getting your information on beatnik culture in the 1950s from On the Road, Lipton has a thing or two to say to you.
Other good parts:
1) Lipton, when discussing books that a beatnik would read, (as opposed to books that a square would), offers tons of names of authors, many of whom are now long forgotten and out of print, but definitely deserve a second look (Edward Dahlberg and Kenneth Fearing anyone?).
2) Where else will you find numerous tape-recorded conversations between Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg? (By the way, if you've never heard of Gregory Corso, PLEASE type his name into the little search field near the top of this page)
Bottom line: read this book.