The road is life

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

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14 comments

  1. Nicely put! I’m always interested in hearing what people not raised in America think about quintessentially American novels. Also, good luck in your studies in England! I studied abroad in London for a year and hope to return after I finish up my uni studies in the US.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment of our review of the film adaptation for this wonderful book. You write with fire in your belly, if you ever want to write for us then give us a yell.

    1. Aw thank you for taking the time to check mine out. I would definitely be interested in writing for you in the future, this was only really my first review but I am up for a challenge 🙂

  3. Great review, I’m glad someone appreciates On the Road as much as I do! I especially like your observations about his erratic writing style, which was one of my favourite things about the novel. And congrats for getting into uni – I’ve just finished the first year of my degree (reading English lit) and can guarantee that you’ll have a brilliant time!

  4. What a great post! On the Road is my all-time favourite. I took it (based purely on the cover) to read on a plane trip with the plan of leaving it behind wherever I happened to finish it (to make room in my luggage). Eight years later, this same tattered copy has now been to four different continents and I could never part with it!

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