Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.
Yesterday I opened up my A-level results. After a tough two years filled with ups and downs, that piece of paper was worth it after all. Today I reflect upon everything. Tomorrow I start to look forward. In five weeks’ time I will be reading English and History at Southampton University. It is with my ‘life-contemplating hat’ on that I want to tell you about my favourite novel.
Bob Dylan himself had this to say about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “it changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”. Now I am not someone who goes in for hyperboles, but when I started reading this book, one of a few I studied as a guest at Cambridge University last summer, I knew it was special. To date I have convinced two friends to pick up a copy and maybe this post – though hardly a review – will persuade you too. (Disclaimer: a third friend of mine actually refused to read past the first page, on the premise that she objected to the character name “Dean”. While I believe this to be a great tragedy, if you are of a similar partiality this book might not be for you.)
On the Road was published in 1957. It tells the story of “the sordid hipsters of America” – the Beat generation. Based on the real lives of Kerouac and his friends, it captures one sub-culture’s rejection of everything ‘American’ about America at the time. Nowadays the word “hipster” refers to the kid who listens to the bands no one has heard of, and fills their wardrobe at charity or thrift shops. But these guys were the true bohemian hedonists that the hippies of the ‘60s would only seek to emulate. In other words, they were basically cool before it was cool to be cool.
Reading this book is to relive one of the most exciting movements in modern culture: sex, drugs, hitching and all, delivered with a certain rhythm that mimics the era’s jazz soundtrack. Kerouac writes restlessly with erratic punctuation, slicing through sentences that try to run and run. He creates his own words like “yangling” and “dingledodies”. It is such freedom in expression that recreates his generation’s rejection of conformity. Even the manuscript of the novel was composed unconventionally, to say the least, typed out on a 120-foot scroll over the course of just three weeks.
Kerouac labelled his own style “spontaneous prose”. His explanation being: “it’s not the words that count but the rush of what is said”. I cannot pitch this book to you in a finer way. You must approach it as an experience instead of a story. You will be rewarded with an outlook that has you revalue life’s road in terms of the characters you meet along the way and the thrills you chase together.
“The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road