On the Road by Jack Kerouac

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 1, New York: I realized, reading On the Road that I am in a period of reading books ‘that defined a generation.’ The Sun Also Rises has that description emblazoned on its back cover, as does The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. And of course, the Kerouac classic. In which he does not just define, but describes and names a generation: a ‘whole beat generation’.

It’s hard not to love this book. It has a very simple formula. Kerouac takes jazz, its rhythms, its explorations, its improvisations, and he fuses it into prose. It works because he does it so artfully; his prose is so incredible. One of his most common introduced improvisations is geography, and as he crosses and criss-crosses the country, he will take one tiny scene outside one tiny town and zoom it back: to the whole of the Mississippi River, or the whole of the Rocky Mountains, or standing at the edge of Long Island or San Francisco, visualizing that whole continent at your back. It’s really quite lovely.

This is youth well-spent. Exploring, experimenting, being largely enthusiastic about the journey and about what you find. (Unless you’re Cassady/Moriarty, in which case you are an ethereal spirit animated solely as a force of enthusiasm.) I like to think we, like all the generations that followed the Beats, captured some small bit of this. Did we write it as beautifully as Mr. Sal Paradise? No. Was it so culturally different that it would have been described by the New York Times Book Review as a Book That Defined a Generation? No. It’s hard to imagine any book capturing that title today, regardless of the beauty of its prose. In fact, I wonder if that’s a phase that’s passed in American literature? I can’t imagine any of the writers laboring away over their laptops in Brooklyn or Echo Park will actually produce the fabled Book That Defined a Generation. At least, it’s too late for mine, probably.

The one new thing I loved out of On the Road the second time around was having lived in San Francisco and New York. The details that make this book a historical vision of the Forties are fascinating in the following millennium. Imagining them bouncing along from SoMa to the Richmond in five minutes flat, from jazz joint to dive bar jazz joint. It’s a totally different city. That in New York, people were finding ‘cold water flats’ in the east 80s. Or that they go to a party in the slums of the West 60s (i.e. where Lincoln Center now resides.) This book is thoroughly modern and accessible to a contemporary reader, yet with a backdrop that is slightly unfamiliar.

This is absolutely a book that you should own and keep in your permanent collection.

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