Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac

If you thought Allen Ginsberg stirred mixed reactions, you ain't seen nothin' yet...With On the Road approaching its 50th birthday, the New York Times posed the following artfully artless question on its ArtsBeat blog:

"What do you think are the lessons of On the Road?"

Whatever you may think of the question, it's certainly provoked a voluminous and richly variegated response...450 responses, to be precise, and counting. Most are lucid; some are brilliant, and a few are downright poetic. They range from passionate rhapsodies to caustic deflations, from wistful nostalgia to sharp feminist demurral. (There does seem to be a pretty clear gender divide in opinion on the book's appeal, for reasons at once obvious and complex.)

Overall, the responses are more interesting than I remember the book itself being. To be honest, I only read On the Road once - for a seminar in grad school, I believe - and it didn't particularly resonate with me. It's not that I disliked it or thought it was sexist (though it no doubt was); I just didn't feel very strongly about it one way or another. But seeing the impact it's had on so many has inspired me to revisit it. In the words of one reader, "The lesson to be learned from On the Road is that a lot of people are still talking about it." Perhaps I'll put it next on my reading list. If so, it would rather appropriately follow The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Some of my favorite responses (I haven't read them all - I mean, I do have work to do!):

"I am a type-A, high-strung, anal-retentive yuppie. Which is why I loved this book so."

"Don't write on benzedrine."

"I learned: 1) that many miserable people simply don't realize they're miserable & 2) lugubrious is a great word that can be used frequently."

But, perhaps pithiest and truest to the Kerouac spirit (the idealized version, anyway):

"Lesson's over. Live it."


Blogger Michael said...

One thing I find interesting about all this is how "On the Road" transformed so many people's lives; there are a number of comments by people who crossed the country after reading it or who lived their lives differently. For my generation, I don't think there was a manifesto that had even remotely the same impact. The ArtsBeat post makes me curious, and I might add the book to my reading list too.

Going through those comments, I admit to being amused by the more caustic or tongue-in-cheek ones. "Happiness is living off ice cream and apple pie in middle-of-nowhere diners" or "That life was much more interesting when gas was less than $3.00 a gallon." There's also a funny, and probably intentionally satirical, one by an "aging hipster" about freedom. But I do like the one you quote at the end ("Lesson's over. Live it.")

By the way, if you've read it, what's McCarthy's "The Road" like? Would you recommend it?

1:19 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

You've hit it spot on. It struck me as well how many of the commentators had either been inspired by the book to put the "pedal to the metal" or at least responded to its call on a gut level. Nowadays it seems like every other movie or book is about a road trip to "find oneself" or "find America," so it's hard, I think us, for us to appreciate just how mind-blowing the concept originally was.

Some of the comments describe this impact - better than I can, in fact. But yes, the snarkier comments are definitely the most entertaining.

And no, I haven't read the McCarthy yet - been busy starting a new job. It's sitting on my shelf mocking me, but I expect once I open it I should be able to read it fairly rapidly.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I'm curious about "The Road" myself; I've never read any McCarthy, actually -- there are quite a few American authors I feel I need to catch up with (I was thinking the other day how I still ought to read "Catch 22", which I was assigned in high school and didn't read because I was probably too engrossed in rock 'n' roll or something). I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on McCarthy's book when you finish it.

12:54 PM  

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