What’s the raunchiest, most obscene thing you’ve ever read? Maybe you’ve secretly perused one of those pornographic dime novels that bookstores try to pass off as “romance.” Maybe you’ve peeked at those dirty stories in the back of women’s beauty/gossip magazines. Or maybe you’ve even read William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.”

To even attempt a description of Burroughs’s novel is a daunting task — “unconventional” would be an understatement. Lacking any plot, “Naked Lunch” is a series of loosely connected, stream-of-consciousness vignettes. Graphic descriptions of depraved sexual acts — both heterosexual and homosexual — are juxtaposed with nauseating accounts of activities usually confined to the bathroom. The result is the literary equivalent of turning over a rock to see the squirming, sickening world beneath and being both fascinated and repulsed by its contents.

First published in 1959, Burroughs’s novel, along with Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” is one of the most important works to come out of the American beatnik movement. The book was written over a period of nine years, during which Burroughs wandered the globe feeding a serious heroin addiction. “Junk,” the slang term he uses to refer to the drug, is central to the novel and inspired the work’s grotesque and fantastical images — everything from a necrophilic death orgy to a talking anus.

Good taste dictates that I withhold describing some of the novel’s more gruesome and vulgar episodes. But the fact that I could publish excerpts if I so desired, or that you can read a smutty romance novel or explore “50 ways to please your man” in the latest issue of Glamour, is testament to the significance of Burroughs and his contemporaries.

“Naked Lunch” was published at a time of dramatic change in what authors were allowed to print. Two years earlier, in 1957, Ginsberg’s magnum opus “Howl” was deemed obscene for its depiction of drug use and homosexuality. The First Amendment won out, however, in a landmark trial — depicted in the 2010 film “Howl” starring James Franco — that protected the poem from censorship.

The “Howl” trial opened the door for other radical works. D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which includes X-rated scenes and repetitive use of the F-bomb and C-word, finally reached publication in 1959 despite being written more than 30 years earlier.

While the publication of Lawrence and Ginsberg’s works was a major breakthrough, it must be noted that “Lady Chatterley” and “Howl” are comparatively tame next to “Naked Lunch.” It was therefore something like the final victory for free speech when Burroughs’s text finally reached American shelves in 1962: If a work as obscene and explicit as “Naked Lunch” could be published, then practically anything could.

By reveling in the taboo, Burroughs seems to challenge the censors directly. At some particularly explicit points, it seems as if the novel is a purposeful experiment to see just how much one could get away with in the literary world — or just how much one could offend a deeply conservative American audience.

In reading “Naked Lunch,” then, each filthy passage becomes as much a cause for celebration as it is for squeamishness. It’s hard to tear yourself away from Burroughs’s opiate-induced nightmare, especially when you understand the battle fought to defend every word from the censor’s knife.

Yet Burroughs’s novel wasn’t intended purely for shock value. Our interest in the work reveals a much deeper truth about human nature: the perverse delight we take in things low and vulgar. Just like the writhing, maggot-inhabited world beneath the rock, “Naked Lunch” becomes a playground for the reader to explore his or her own suppressed fascination with the indecent.

Burroughs even goes so far as to suggest that it is this dark corner of our nature that controls our lives entirely. In the humorous account of the man who teaches his anus to talk, the articulate butthole begins to eat and drink and speak on its own. Eventually, it takes over the man completely, closing off his mouth and killing his brain.

Though Burroughs’s cynical outlook on humanity is debatable, there’s no denying our attraction to the obscene. A frightening blitzkrieg of sex, drugs and potty humor, “Naked Lunch” marked the dawn of a new age in which a writer was free to explore every aspect of human nature. Or at least to publish “10 tried-and-true tips to improve your sex life.”

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