On The Road- Jack Kerouac- 1951


"And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about"

I find it really hard to construct lists of "All-time favourites". I'm too indecisive, and my tastes shift constantly depending on what mood I'm in. I can fairly confidently say though that if I had to decide on an all-time, top 5 favourite books list, this would be in it.

Two things strike me about people's reactions to this book:

Its a Marmite book. You either love it, and are consumed by it, or it leaves you totally cold and you can't understand what all the fuss is about. I know a lot of people who read it hate the characters and hate spending time with them, and really can't get into the frantic pace of it.

People who love it tend to describe reading it in the same way. When the film came out, I went to the Tyneside Cinema's book club screening of it. In the discussion afterwards, it was amazing how similarly the people who loved it described how they read it. "It hit me like a train" or "I was knocked over by it" or "it was like hitting a brick wall" or "It stopped me in my tracks" or "I read it constantly over two days and I just couldn't stop reading".  My friend Ian says in his Goodreads review: "I tore through it, unable to put it down for two days". I've heard similar things over twitter and in conversation too.

The same happened with me when I read it at school. I didn't think I'd like it, but I ended up entirely consumed by Sal Paradise's world. I like my comforts when travelling, and point blank refuse to go camping. I can only just cope with the Megabus to London and get exceptionally tired and whingey, and travel sick. I am suspicious of hotels that have less than four stars. But this book made even me want to pack a rucksack and head off into the night, with no plans other than to see where the world takes me. I was left breathless with the excitement and sadness of the Beat Generation. Breathless is another word that comes up pretty commonly in descriptions of this book.I've now read it goodness only knows how many times, and each time I'm surprised by it and enthralled by it.

On the Road is essentially a chronicle of the travels-from one side of America to another, and back again several times-of Sal Paradise and his unconventional ragtag group of friends. On the way they find humanity, self-knowledge, jazz and the thrill of the energy of life itself. Its a dirty and gritty journey loaded with drugs, alcohol, selfishness and cruelty, and I can really see why some people hate these characters. But I was with them the whole way, sharing their enthusiasm and their vigour and admiring their courage.
The pace is frenetic, the descriptions dynamic and energetic. Sal Paradise's (for which read Jack Kerouac's) intensely powerful, consuming friendship for Dean Moriarity (for which read Neal Cassady) runs throughout the book and is written beautifully, with all of its pitfalls and ugliness and love.

I haven't ever done drugs in my lifetime, owing mainly to my job and the fact that I would be too terrified of losing my registration, but also due to the fact that I'm embarrassing enough with a combination of alcohol and Piriton, never mind anything else. But with books like this, (and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), I don't particularly feel that I'm missing out on anything profound. I can see it all through the safety of someone else's words. I am, just as Sal is, shambling after the people who interest me:
 “...and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because 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, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

If you think I'm gushing about this book like an infatuated girl, that's because I am infatuated with it. I would never have even a sliver of the strength needed to take a journey into the unknown like Sal does, but this book allows me a little window into how it must feel to be pushing yourself so hard into a future that is as terrifying and dark as it is full of possibilities. Some people think these characters are arrogant shits, but I think they are pioneers.


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