Am I the only one who finds Kerouac’s On the Road boring?

I find Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadtedious and uninspiring.

There, I said it. Hipster cred be damned.

You’d think that I would be the perfect target demographic for the book, since I left my office job of five years to explore the country in a van for several months. Yet, I find the story to be a complete snoozer.

I’ve had the book for five years now and only made it halfway through, despite several attempts. And I’m done trying.

On the Road Kerouac

My first shot at On the Road

I’m aware that On the Road, first published in 1957, is widely regarded as one of the great travel narratives of all-time. Countless vagabonds and travelers have cited the book as an inspiration.

I purchased On the Road five years ago at Powell’s Books in Portland. It was my first time visiting the massive bookstore so I figured I should buy a classic. When I got home I was stunned to find my attention slipping before I reached page 50.

The first several chapters describe a series of events in the main character’s life. The problem is they don’t seem to be leading anywhere. I keep thinking, Is there a point to all this? Or is the entire book just a random string of barely-connected events?

There may be movement in the strictest sense – Sal Paradise is, in fact, moving from city to city. But the story isn’t going anywhere. Kerouac isn’t making me like the characters. Or hate them. I’m completely indifferent.

I could write a similar book about my own four months on the road, a simple chronological recitation of events, but that wouldn’t make it interesting.

You could question my decision to give up on the book less than halfway through, and I suppose that would be a fair criticism. But we live in the age of instant gratification. I don’t have ADD, but I am part of the iPod generation. We’re used to moving on if songs or tv shows or books don’t grab us right away. Here we are now… entertain us!

I recently gave up on Neil Gaiman’s American Godsfor the same reason, so Kerouac is in good company.

reading

I do enjoy travel narratives, I swear

By contrast, I find Into the Wildby Jon Krakauer incredibly inspiring. It’s one of my favorite books of all-time. I can totally relate to the modern-day young college graduate, itching to get out and see what else life has to offer besides sitting behind a desk. That story made me want to hit the open road and start traveling immediately.

But On the Road makes me feel nothing at all. I can’t relate to the characters. I can’t relate to the setting, the era. I don’t feel moved. I just feel bored.

Every time I hear a reference to On the Road in pop culture – like when one of my favorite bands, the Hold Steady, name-drops Sal Paradise in a song – I briefly reconsider whether to give On the Road another shot. Ultimately, I decide against it.

I realize criticizing Kerouac might strike some as heresy, but all art is subjective. I’m glad On the Road has inspired people to set off in search of adventure. It just doesn’t work for me.

Should I give the book another chance? Are there any other crazies out there who also think On the Road is overrated?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

45 comments on “Am I the only one who finds Kerouac’s On the Road boring?

  1. I’m glad someone finally said it!

    The book doesn’t ultimately lead anywhere. It took me a long time to get through it, but I did it just so I could see what happens. Not that I need any inspiration to travel, but it didn’t make me want to jump in my car and hit the road.

    Kelly
    Awkward Tourist recently posted..Notes on the Scenic Route

  2. Be dammed 🙂

    I understand your reasoning why you don’t like On the Road but it is one of my favourite books, so much so that I incorporated the name in my blog title.

    I love the way Jack lives this hipster lifestyle, living the life of a bum, hitch-hiking his way across America.

    I will also admit that it took me a few turns to actually finish the book simply because it is a fairly difficult book to keep track of because of the random nature of Jack’s writing.
    Mike Cotton recently posted..Cape Kidnappers New Zealand– Blog4NZ

    • That kind of lifestyle fascinates me too, which is why I thought I’d enjoy it more. I am happy to hear the other perspective so thanks for the feedback!

  3. I think ‘On the Road’ requires a certain mind set. I first read it when I was 16 or 17 and it really spoke to me then. I really connected with the beat aesthetic. If I read it again these days? Probably not so much.

    ‘Into the Wild’ I liked as well, and still like, but I have a problem with Christopher. I’m not sure how accurate his portrayal is as far as the real kid goes, but.. well, he came off as a self involved jerk to me. *shields self from evil glares*
    Evan recently posted..Miniature Seoul

    • Good call Evan… I think perhaps my expectations were too high. I went into it thinking, “This will be the greatest book of my life!,” rather than just reading it like any other book.

      I can see how some would think Christopher from Into the Wild was arrogant. Many feel that way about Sal from On the Road, too… I guess it depends on how closely you connect with the character.

  4. I was having totally the same problem, I got to about page 39 and just COULD NOT go on because I was so bored, but then I just downloaded te audiobook and listened to it all in two hours. Honestly, I couldnt have read it but the audiobook slid into my head like a breeze! It’s a great story and the way it’s written is simply beautiful, I’m so glad I didn’t give up.
    If you still want to give this book a shot I can e-mail you the audiobook 🙂

  5. Honestly, that someone could gain so much success out of rambling nonsense pumped out on a single sheet of paper during a 3-week span (possibly with lots of wine involved…) is pretty damn admirable. I love beat lit, but some books tend to dwell on ideas of the mundane and breaking out of a cookie cutter existence… and I feel they are better for their social criticism and philosophies than providing an entertaining novel. Think Crime and Punishment or Kafka — they can get terribly dull in plot, but their social critique is (subjectively speaking) great. It’s also no longer totally relevant (re: your era comment).

    So, yeah, On the Road (and, well, Kerouac in general) definitely can be boring but he did put some radical (for the 50s) ideas out there.

  6. I had the same problem with On the Road, my dad gave it to me as a present before I went on my first extended backpacking trip. I loved the idea of the book but I could never get full absorbed into the characters and the plot. I ended up loosing interest just over half way through. I also did that with Lord of the Rings though, which many people LOVE so maybe it’s an attention span problem.

  7. I read On The Road about maybe 4 years ago. I probably could read it again and remember little from it. It was nice for an overseas flight is the most I can say about it. I didn’t hate it by any means but I’m not ready to make it my manifesto either.

    American Gods, tho., I have to damn you for that.
    Mark E Tisdale recently posted..Camper Re-Use

  8. To begin…

    On the Road is, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written. The problem that I think most people have with the book is that they go in to it already expecting something. Already expecting to be riveted. The beauty in this book is that you have to put the time in to get to know the characters. They grown on you, but not in the way you expect. Ultimately, the story isn’t about travel as much as it is about the human experience. The pain, the crazyness, the good the bad. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and pure poetry combined. That said, different themes speak to different people, and so not all the “great” books will inspire everyone. I could go on and on about the ways this particular book has influenced me, but I think that the main thing that struck me about the book was the the decline of one of the main characters, which highlights the ulimate fate of “living the fast-life”/putting up fascades. Deep stuff, but worth every moment. At page 50 you aren’t there yet…your just getting pulled into the wordy, choppy, seeming meaninglessness of it all…which is part of the point….

    Give it another shot 🙂

  9. I tried reading this book when i was backpacking through central america and i have never hated a book as much as this one. It literally made me angry. His prose is a joke, its like something a 14 year old would write when describing his weekend at grandma’s. His characters are hardly interesting and actually unlikable. They do nothing brash or cool, they say nothing profound, deep, witty, or even offensive. He ends most sentences with, “and so on” which is the most insulting literary shortcut i’ve ever imagined. His descriptions of people, places, and events dont exist or are so dull and worthless that they shouldn’t. I also couldn’t make it past about page 70 or 80, but decided to check one more chapter out before i completely gave up. Im from New Orleans, which is a wild, vibrant, exploding city full of character and life and i heard that Jack had been there and written about it. So i skipped ahead to see how he described his experiences there. Well let’s just say after reading the TWO pathetic paragraphs on New Orleans i literally threw the book at a wall and left it on the floor. Which proved to be the ONLY thing i enjoyed about the book. So it wasn’t a total loss i guess.

  10. I see someone has recommended Dharma Bums to you. My two cents to you: if you’re older than 16 and you’ve stopped the weed, just don’t do it. The lasting impression I have of that book, other than the pages of safely-skippable nonsense, is the image of Kerouac as a naive person who never matured past adolescence it created in my mind. Can’t say I wasn’t glad to have it recycled. It was my deal-breaker when I decided to add Kerouac to my list of severely abhorred authors.

  11. So I read it about 4 years ago and it was only by sheer perseverance that I made it through lol! My two passions are travelling alone and literature so needless to say it made me feel like an idiot when the best part of the book was that it looks nice on my bookshelf. I vaguely remember the characters although i do remember some passages and that they were beyond tedious. So yea you arent alone. I just bought this book on the Beat generation which is proving to be a lot more interesting 🙂

  12. it’s funny. I just tried to read “American Gods” and gave up by page 50. now I am on page 150 of “On the Road” and I just cant seem to get through it. I can appreciate the fact that this was a new style of writing and that Kerouac paved the way for the Beat Generation, but I’m just absolutely bored with the story… or lack thereof. I really wanted to like it and I really gave it a chance but I dont think i can continue reading. I can’t connect with any of the Characters and dont seem to see any plot. I have to agree with Truman Capote on this one. it is more like typing than writing. about 2 months ago, I finished reading Capote’s “In Cold Blood”. I found his writing to be Artistic, inspiring and absolutely beautiful and his telling of this story was heart wrenching.

  13. I’m so glad to read this blog entry. I thought it was just me. I don’t think I even made it to page 50. I have been beating myself up for not being able to get through this relatively easy-to-read book. That is, I found it easy to understand but difficult to want to bother. Perhaps people liked reading this kind of thing back in the fifties because they didn’t have blogs or access to other people’s journals like we do now. Maybe I should try to read it like a blog, one or two pages at a time. Perhaps I’ll be finished with it by the time I die.

    • I agree with your assessment – in today’s world of blogs, this book doesn’t have the same kind of appeal it once did.

  14. Ok.
    So everybody always says that as a teenager you should read this book. That it will change your life.
    Now. I got this book for my sixteenth birthday. I’d never heard of it before, and only found out its supposed to be life-changing after putting it down after 140 pages. So I went into the book with no expectations, other than a thrilling tale of life ‘on the road’.

    And yet. I found the most boring, repetitive book I have .ever. read. It takes a good deal to make me put a book down at any time, let alone halfway through.
    The book lacks plot. The characters lack substance, with, possibly, the exception of Dean Moriarty, who is quite simply, insane.
    When adults read this book and believe it pointless, it seems they are usually told that you need to be young to read it. A teenager, ideally.

    But as a sixteen year old boy, I found this book tedious, dull, and an unending cycle of events. Sal moved from one city to another. Got drunk. Sal moved from one city to another. Got drunk. Etc. Dull indeed!

    I personally believe that a good book should be a delicious banquet.
    Not something distasteful that I’m trying to force down my throat.

    Unfortunately, ‘On the Road’ falls into the latter category.

    Thanks, Oli.

  15. i took up this book after hearing great things about it by Bob Dylan in one of his documentary; I read up to 100 pages and then left, then again made a fresh start after a year and left after 50 pages; few more attempts and then finally decided to drop it and kept it for some other time in the future

  16. I persevered through A Catcher In The Rye, and thought it would be difficult to find something more tedious. Wrong!!!
    And it is so contradictory, I mean for a bunch of guys with no money, they seem to spend an awful lot on beer.
    I have made it to page 70, but am on the verge of giving up, or jumping to the last chapter 🙂

    Pete

  17. Ha ha, I just tossed the book out of sheer boredom and found my way here (just in case I was the only one who didn’t get it). Third time that I’ve tried to read it in the last 10 years. The worst part it that I’ve probably re read the first 50 pages 3 times now! It’s so tedious but I’ve talked to so many people who love it. Oh well I’ll take another stab in about 5 years and see if I get any further.

  18. Funny, I crashed on your post from France where I am googling “Kerouac boring” after i remembered all the attempts reading that book in a time when I was reading a LOT. And, if I loved his lifestyle and the title, the book was so unexciting to me that I could never finish it after so many attempts.

    If you like travel stories, one amazing writer is Nicolas Bouvier (“The way of the world”, “japanese chronicles”) it’s less about the self than about experiencing the other, the different, the new while travelling the world.

    To quote him “On croit qu’on va faire un voyage mais bientôt c’est le voyage qui vous fait ou vous défait.” which basically means “You believe that you make a trip until you realize that the trip makes you – or unmakes you”
    Vini recently posted..Last pictures, last post

  19. COMPLETELY AGREE!
    I tried to read On the Road last year, and quit after only 20 pages. My mom told me it was one they were required to read back in college in the late 60s, I heard about it in a Beastie Boys song and so WTH, I WANTED to like it. I tried again just this week and made it to page 50 – I’m giving up on the text and will try the audio book as suggested above.
    I love reading books that inspire adventure. I left the states 4 years ago and despite keeping a residence in different parts of Europe, have lived out of a backpack comfortably for years throughout Europe, South America and Asia. Maybe 40+ years ago this story was adventurous enough to inspire but in today’s day and age of information access and global commerce, c’mon.
    Not so much of a ‘traveler’s story’ but if you feel the same way I do about On the Road, try Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, epic story.
    Sorry Kerouac, I’m sure you are awesome, just not my thing.

  20. I’m pleased to see that I’m not alone!

    There are 2 classic books that I have been unable to finish:

    1. On the Road – like you I just couldn’t get into it.
    2. Moby Dick – This one started off well, in fact the description of the bar in chapter 2 was so great that I struggled 3/4 of the way through the book just hoping that it would pick back up again. Unfortunately it didn’t so I finally gave in.

  21. i’m trying to read this before i apply for graduate school. it is sooo boring. some sentences are great. on the road is a little like the way frank Sinatra sings: normal but “legendary.” i think it has something to do with the time period. different parts of america were first becoming aware of each other so they needed an american stereotype.

    i for one am very disillusioned with traveling, my family moved around when i was a kid. Even people who love the book say he (Kerouac) seems to believe he knows everything even as he experiences totally new people. but he was young when he wrote the book, so that is also part of it, kind of an arrogant journalist. i’m going to pretend it is the diary of barbara walters.

  22. It’s so comforting to find someone who finds this book boring, I thought I was the only one. A dear friend gave it to me, told me it had changed her life and she hoped it would change mine. I couldn’t finish reading and, like you said, couldn’t see the freaking point of it. As I read, I felt like I was at a bar somewhere, and some really boring guy was telling me some stories which only were exciting to him.

    I actually truly dislike the Beat Generation. I don’t think they stood for anything other than their own madness, and I don’t believe that to be an inspiring message. Living life to the fullest the way they did wasn’t healthy, it was stupid. It wasn’t about traveling and having an adventure, they didn’t actually have a purpose. To be honest, I don’t know what their books and their life styles were about. I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out.

  23. I heard about what a great influence this book was to many artists and musicians so I gave it a try. Just finished it around an hour ago and found it to be unsatisfying. Not terrible but I could have spent the time reading something that I liked more. That said, I did go into it with the expectation that I would get something profound from it.

    Instead, I found it to be extremely repetitive. Sal shuttles back and forth from New York to San Francisco over and over, despite the fact that he gets tired of the road every time. It’s hard to see why he and Dean stay friends, despite the fact that Dean basically uses everybody around him for kicks and leaves them. There were some moments that I liked, but these were short and rare among long descriptions of wandering around bars and stealing stuff.

    Perhaps the reason why the book was so influential is that it was released in a more conservative time, and the rebellious attitudes presented in it seemed more refreshing and exciting. Or maybe it’s great and I just can’t see it. I don’t know.

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