On the Road

On the Road

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publication date: 1957
Genre: Beat fiction; road fiction

What’s it about?On the Road

Writer Sal Paradise meets free spirit Dean Moriarty and, sometimes together, sometimes apart, the two embark on a series of road trips, from East to West (and back again) across the United States of America. Fuelled by poetry and jazz, and accompanied sporadically by a host of friends and acquaintances, their search for new horizons also represents a search for life, fulfilment and meaning.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was another Christmas present, so it was already on my shelves. However, if it had been a library copy, I’d definitely be adding it to my shopping list as I loved it so much.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a good deal about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, of which Kerouac was a leading light. On the Road is essentially an autobiographical novel, the characters representing people in his life and the events based on real experiences. Although I don’t normally read ‘around’ the books I choose for this blog series, sometimes I can’t help it; and when a book has gripped me so much, it’s even more fascinating to discover that it all happened (to some degree) in real life.

As part of this process of discovery I also learned that William S Burroughs was another Beat figure – and his novel Naked Lunch happens to be next but one on my ‘to read’ list. It will be interesting to compare that with On the Road; I wonder whether it will give me a totally new window on to Beat culture or whether it will reiterate the themes of Kerouac’s novel. I guess I’ll find out soon…

Of course, On the Road also gave me more insights into towns and cultures across America, as Sal and Dean travel across states and see new landscapes and peoples unfolding before their eyes. From the metropolis of New York to the swamps of the Deep South, from the plains of the Midwest to the seaport of San Francisco, and venturing ultimately even to the deserts of Mexico, there is more here than I suspect I will manage to see in a lifetime.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It introduced me to the Beat Generation, and thereby an entirely new perspective on life and how to live it. Despite having studied English Literature at university, I never came across the Beats (I read French as well as English, so was only really exposed to half a syllabus for each, and my preference at the time veered towards the 16th and 17th centuries), so at the age of 45 I feel a bit ‘out of time’ discovering them.

It’s been a while since I read anything that came so close to capturing the way I feel about the world. I wouldn’t say I’m quite as free spirited as Dean (let’s be generous and call him a free spirit rather than ‘a rat’), but I have never felt that I connect with other people as well as everyone else seems to, as if it’s a knack I haven’t quite ‘got’.

I’ve always prided myself on being self-sufficient, but the downside of this is that I struggle to fit in with any ‘community’ with whom I cross paths. This is probably the reason I’ve flitted from one job/career to another and eventually found fulfilment (of a sort) in self-employment: although it can be frustrating not to know when my next piece of work is coming in, I adore the fact that I have the choice whether or not to take it up or turn it down when it does come.

The interesting thing for me about On the Road was that it’s not just about guys who ignore work altogether to go on endless trips. Admittedly they do sometimes beg, borrow and steal to get by, but, more frequently than I would have expected, they do seek work – with the clear aim that they will do whatever work is needed to earn the money they need to do the next thing they want to do. It’s a transaction – and then they move on. I can really relate to this. I do usually take the work that comes to me – and I should stress that I do it to the best of my ability – but when it’s done, it’s done.

I have never felt comfortable belonging to organisations, whether in a work or a social context. I don’t know whether it’s the weight of expectation – that if I declare my allegiance to a group, they will have the right to tell me how to behave, and this will somehow feel like a constraint upon my personal freedoms? Or is it that I feel I’m giving up other options (ditto)? My overwhelming instinct any time anyone tries to pin me down is to run. In my defence, this may be because, when I do commit, I commit fully and give 100% – and I only have so much energy to go round.

I still don’t really understand it. All I know for sure is that this is how I’m wired, and rather than beat (ha) myself up over it, surely it makes more sense to become at peace with it, in the time that remains to me. It should still be possible for me to do good in the world; and if I can do it in my own way, isn’t that what they call a ‘win-win’?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The first step on the road (again, ha) to doing things my own way is to recognise what I truly feel at ease with. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year planning a variety of creative projects that I genuinely do want to see out there in the world. However, I’ve finally come to terms with my own limitations and have recognised that I can’t do them all instantly. All of that creative energy takes its toll, and if I try to do too much too quickly I burn out.

I’ve therefore given myself permission to put some things off until next year or even the year (or years) after that. I have the launch of the Book Diaries Volume 1 tentatively scheduled for this October; there’s the next issue of Bookylicious (same month); and I’m going to try to finish one other project related to the Quick Lit Fix some time before the end of 2016. But I think that’s as much ‘production’ as I can cope with for now.

So the one thing I’m going to do, to honour my own way of operating in the world, is to let myself retreat into what truly makes me happy; to return, once again, to the original intention of this very blog challenge, and tell myself that reading is important and I need to make more time for it. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, I can’t just continually create: I also need to ‘fill the creative well’ from time to time.

I promised in my last post that I wouldn’t make any more vows about scheduling. This is, therefore, not a commitment to figuring out the best time of the day or week to put ‘reading’ in my diary. This is about saying that reading needs to come first and everything else needs to fit around it. This may sound like a rather wishy-washy target, but I assure you, for me it is massive.

I suspect it won’t be easy. Pressures of work and society will no doubt challenge me in this intention, and it’s also likely I’ll tell myself off for not ‘doing’ more to make the world a better place. But given the insights I’ve had through a mere 18 months of writing the Book Diaries, I can’t think of a better way to improve myself (and the world) than to do more – not less – of my beloved reading.

A musical interlude

After my last foray into the ‘obvious’ choice of song to accompany Lolita, this time I’m heading back to the realm of the tenuous. Once again, my trusty subconscious offered up a great track that seemed highly appropriate for On the Road.

I bring you… Iggy Pop’s The Passenger.