There are certain books that are milestones on our journey out of childhood. We are different people after reading them.
That’s one hell of a recommendation. Maybe. (Do a search for the books that changed people’s lives. You’ll be disappointed.)
I first read On the Road when I was about 19. If the book was written in one sitting (and it wasn’t, but more of that later), it certainly deserves to be read as quickly as possible, and I knocked it off in a couple of days.
I lived by the quote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn.”
I even loved the cover, with the road, whatever that was, stretching away to infinity in the distance. And I wanted a part of that.
A couple of years later, I hit the road myself. I spent a year in the United States, working (illegally, but don’t tell the authorities) and travelling around the country in as near a fashion to Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise as I could.
That’s something for what is ultimately the letters of the alphabet arranged in a particular order.
What more can you say about a book? Well, I can say this. I’ve read it at least twice since then, and with the benefit of age and experience … it ain’t so good. The characters, the storyline, they’ve not aged well.
One of its problems is its success. Not just commercial success, but On The Road, together with the youth culture explosion of the 1950s in music, particularly, and film, gave us the world we have now.
When it was written, in 1951, there was no such thing as a teenager. Now, the entire culture of the western world is based on youth. We don’t have anything else: It’s all about rebellion and individuality.
Imagine a 19-year-old westerner reading the book today. They’ve never known anything else but the world created by On The Road, so there’s nothing new in it. Boring.
The last time I read it, I was struck by another theme altogether: friendship, or a lack of it, and how Dean Moriarty eventually lets all his friends down. This is a theme for all ages, but it’s not what On The Road is remembered for.
One book that perhaps fits into the same category of game-changing novels is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S Thompson. I don’t have any mixed thoughts on this one: I always thought it was terrible.
I have a fitting story about how I came to read the book: I was travelling around India, and befriended an American, who said whenever he went on the road (we still used that term), he bought a new copy of Fear and Loathing, read it, and then passed it to someone (me) on the understanding that I would read and pass on myself.
I have a confession to make. I did read it, but kept it.
I was a bit older by then, but I’ve never been impressed by drug culture, so it was always going to be a hard sell. I read it again recently, and didn’t hate it quite so much, but even then the hatredometer only went down from 10 to about seven.
It comes down to the ignorant assumption that he, the writer, is cool, and everyone else in the book, from policemen to hotel staff, is to varying degrees uncool because they can’t see how cool he is, as is proved by any attempt to stop him in his coolness.
I particularly despise Thompson’s own lazy re-use of the Fear and Loathing phrase in his own work (although I admit it is a good title), and the even lazier re-use by writers who think using it gives them their own passage into the world of cool.
I even hate the word ‘cool’.
But that’s me.
Youth culture, and especially novels about it, has a shelf life, and like some exploitative and derivative pop song, the use-by date comes around pretty quickly. Great if they get you at the right moment, but that doesn’t last.
Oh yes. The way On the Road was written. The legend is that Jack Kerouac sat down at a typewriter, and just started writing, and kept going for two weeks, until it was finished. He was so in the zone he didn’t stop to change the paper, using instead some type of giant-sized loo roll of paper.
Okay, he did do that. But what they don’t tell you, when you go and see this loo roll in an exhibition, is that the idea had been in his head for years, and he’d written bits and pieces along the way. So this two-week session was among other things a rewrite, an organisation of his existing thoughts.
And then, it was another six years before it was published, during which the book went through a number of edits and rewrites. In other words, pretty similar to what any writer does: you have your moments of inspiration, call it free-form jazz improvisation, if you will.
It comes quickly in those moments, but it slips through your fingers, and you spend years trying to get back to that moment. Then there’s months and years of hard work involved in rethinking, rewriting, starting again, salvaging stuff from the bin, and eventually, hopefully, finishing, or at least calling a halt to it before you go even madder.
Not necessarily cool, but show me a book with genuine quality, and I’ll bet that’s how it was written. (Fear and Loathing, by the way, was first conceived in March 1971, and published that November.)
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