I find Jack Kerouac’s On the Road tedious 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.
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 Gods for the same reason, so Kerouac is in good company.
I do enjoy travel narratives, I swear
By contrast, I find Into the Wild by 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!