Post Kindle, I had started wondering if a digital reader really helps or hurts my reading. I cannot handle more than one book at a time. It makes me jump from one book to the other without finishing or enjoying either. So I walked into a second hand book store in Chicago and bought On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
Now, I am not so sure if this was the right book to test my theory. It haunts me even when I am not reading it. All I think about is Jack Kerouac and what kind of a person he must have been to write a book like that.
On the road is a beautiful ramble. It is about several road trips across America, all of which really happened. The publishers made Kerouac change the names of his characters to protect him against litigation. If I have to describe what this book is really about, it would sound very unimpressive.It is about an American guy who is always broke, and travels from the New York to San Fransisco and back several times, usually hitch hiking with random strangers. He meets his gang of friends -- each one unique and eccentric in their own way. They get tangled badly in problems that would seem quite ridiculous to a "normal" person. The writer tries to place his stories around the craziest one of all his friends -- Dean Moriarty.
What is more important is the revolution this book represents.
For the travelers, backpackers, road trippers and the adventurers around the world, On The Road would perhaps provide an explanation as to why the "road" is so enticing. We are growing up in a generation that believes in extending youth indefinitely. We could all very well go into our late thirties and not really have a "plan". But for some of us, the road is enough of a destination, making it very confusing to look at ourselves through others' eyes. The things you discover about the journey and about yourself on the road sometimes are more valuable than the things you would gather if you stop. It was perhaps the first paradigm shift where the road became the representative of male identity, the romance being in not conforming to the traditional roles associated with being a man.
Salvatore (Sal) Paradise [Kerouac in real life] travels to Denver to meet this crazy guy called Dean Moriarty [Neal Cassady in real life]. In Sal's own words, "[Dean]He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted to so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him...Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me."
Dean is trying to find something through his own journeys but he does not really know what he is looking for. Sometimes, his long monologues remind you of the teachings of Eastern mysticism. But most of the times his craziness, his absolute disorganization and his unwillingness to be responsible for anything drowns all his dismal sane thoughts. Sal, on the other hand, is the passive and reflective mirror that reflects Dean back to the readers. And I think more than the real Dean, I came to appreciate this reflection of Dean Moriarty towards the end of the book.
Kerouac has inspired not just other Beat poets and writers but also musicians such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and The Beatles. However, behind all the celebration of individual identity, seeking truth and meaning in life, not conforming to the expected cultural and social roles, you can sense the soul destroying confusion that absolute freedom is able to create. There is a point to which freedom helps nourish and cherish human spirit. After you cross that point, the feeling of being helpless is similar to what it could have been on the other end of the spectrum -- with limited freedom and lot of social and cultural obligations.
What is worth reading and re-reading is Kerouac's impatient and spontaneous style. The entire book talks to you like a passionate, high-on-life person you just met who is telling you his story on a hot summer evening. Some lines just emerge out of nowhere and make the all-over-the-place story seem suddenly profound. Like this one:
“I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till i drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
And beyond all the philosophy, you can clearly see how much Kerouac loved America. There is a lot of poetry in the pages as New York gently turns into the Midwest taking you through corn fields and clear, starry nights, the warmth and the jazzy smoothness of the South and the craziness of the West. Fifty years later, it is all still there. Interestingly, when I bought this book in Chicago, I was reading Kerouac's description of Chicago. Then, I went to Denver, Laramie, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Salt Lake city in a span of those two months with the book. And I always read about the city I was in! :)