On not getting On The Road

As an immigrant to America who arrived after graduating from college, I missed out reading the classics of American literature, not to mention learning about historical events that are referred to in shorthand by their names (Appomattox, Valley Forge, and the like) that most native-born Americans get as part of their schooling. I have tried to fill in my knowledge these cultural touchstones as best I can, with varying levels of success.

When it comes to literature, I have had mixed success. I have tried reading the American classics and liked some (Mark Twain and John Steinbeck’s works, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Scarlet Letter) while not making much headway with others and finding them either boring or somewhat pointless (Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s works).

One can’t blame the latter authors for my not getting their work because my reading tastes are somewhat lowbrow and tend to favor story and characters over writing style and descriptive prose. I am a reader who tends to miss deep symbolism. If you have a message for me, tell it to me straight, is my attitude.

My most recent failure was with Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road that I tried to read over the past few days. I was drawn to it because I kept coming across references to it as the great American novel that captured the countercultural life of what the author referred to as the beat generation. Critics have said that the book is largely drawn from Kerouac’s own life and the characters in his book are lightly disguised people from real life such as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The book seemed like something I should be familiar with.

I quickly got tired of it. Set in 1948/1949, it seemed to consist of a group of young people frenetically going from place to place across the US, adding and shedding people along the way, without much point. After persevering through half the book, I found it too repetitive and stopped reading it altogether.

I think my problem is that writing style alone does not satisfy me. I quickly tire of lyricism and poetic imagery and writing flourishes and yearn to have the story move forward and seem like it is getting somewhere. This is probably why I went into science rather than literature.


  1. Holms says

    What did you think of Steinbeck, if you have read him? Personally, I found The Grapes of Wrath to not only be a compelling read, but also highly informative of American history and a powerful argument against ‘trickle down’ economics. Simply put, we know stripping worker protections doesn’t work, because Steinbeck chronicled what happens without them.

  2. lanir says

    For Kerouac and frinds I gather you really just want to read Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and then you’ve got the general idea. Pick up more if you’re so inclined but mainly… understand “Howl”.

    I tend to read fantasy and sci-fi for recreation. So most of the stuff I had to read in school didn’t thrill me. I started to think of the classics as examples where certain styles or ideas were first promoted to a wider audience and caught on. What seemed revolutionary a hundred years ago might seem to simply be a standard trick in any modern writer’s toolbox. If the stories themselves were not interesting my interest waned quickly.

    If I were recommending books that are outside my usual genres but still made for interesting and insightful reads I would probably recommend Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” in that order. They’re all from the 50’s and 60’s so I’m not sure if they seem like classics or not. I haven’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird” but that’s on my to-do list.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I have read three of the four you mention (with the exception of The Bell Jar) and especially liked Catcher and Mockingbird.

  4. Trebuchet says

    I was required to read “Catcher In The Rye” in school, and therefore hate it to this day. It was a surprisingly progressive thing for schools, especially in Montana, to be requiring in the mid 1960’s, however.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    William Golding was English.

    I think Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is generally considered a successor to the Beat folk (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc).

    I’ve read a bit of Kerouac, some Ginsberg, but more Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junkie).

    Gritty stuff, as is Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, but definitely worth reading IMO.

  6. Dunc says

    For myself, “On The Road” holds the title of “Worst Book I Have Ever (Tried To) Read”. “Catcher In The Rye” comes second, mainly because it’s shorter.

  7. dmcclean says

    I was required to read “Catcher In The Rye” in school, and therefore hate it to this day. It was a surprisingly progressive thing for schools, especially in Montana, to be requiring in the mid 1960’s, however.

    Leading to this cultural touchstone: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/an-Ro1KJb2tYhbJmm/field_of_dreams_1989_the_pta_meeting/

    (In the novel the film is based on, the protagonist goes to NH to look for Salinger, in the movie he goes to Boston to look for the fictional Mann. Wikipedia says Salinger threatened suit, but there’s no citation.)

  8. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    I think you’re reading On the Road at the wrong age, in the wrong age. You need to have read it as a teen or undergrad in the 1950s. Then it was a blazing display of a world of new possibilities, freedoms never hinted at in your conventional upbringing. In hindsight I can’t help conflating two decades and superimposing Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” as a soundtrack to reading On the Road as a young man. Yes it absolutely is nothing more than a meandering diary about young people pointlessly wandering around the US. Well, if I recall correctly, it also expresses admiration for the experience of creating, and listening to, jazz and poetry. But at the time, the notion that one could just wander around freely enjoying scenery, jazz, poetry and sex, all with little money and less responsibility — was a thunderclap in the mind of someone brought up in the conventional middle-class of the 1950s. I don’t think anyone in literature suggested anything like that lifestyle before Kerouac; and the book set the paradigm for two decades of social upheaval that followed.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Just an Organic …

    I think you are right in your diagnosis. There are some experiences that require one to be a certain age to appreciate.

  10. flex says

    I rather like On the Road, and I’ve read it twice. Once when I was in my late 20’s and more recently in my late 40’s (with the restored edition with the original names Kerouac used rather than the pseudonyms in the original edition).

    The rhythm of the text appealed to me, even though the events were mundane.

    I also like Burroughs The Naked Lunch although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you knew what you were getting into. It’s not really a novel, but the disconnected fragments of writing when Burroughs was high on drugs for a period in Tangiers. Looking at it as an insight into someone’s mind while they are high is fascinating. Then the second half of the book should be required reading for anyone who is personally unfamiliar with the affects of drugs on a person, as it’s largely a description of the actions of each drug felt to Burroughs as he used them.

    As far as other American classics go, I’ve tried to read as many as I can. I only enjoyed one chapter of Moby Dick, the chapter about the various colors of white. That was some good writing there, but I understand if some people feel it was dull.

    I regularly re-read Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad”, and think it’s his best work.

    But somehow I haven’t been able to get really into Dos Passos or Sinclair. Sinclair writes like a moralist, always pointing out how rotten people are and how much better things would be if we just listened to him, and Dos Passos has yet to capture my interest. And that’s not because I’m unwilling to give him a chance, I’ve plowed through some notoriously dull prose (*cough* Gormanghast *cough*) with enjoyment. Maybe it’s because Dos Passos’ characters are so fixed in their time.

    Oh, and while I’ve not gone back to re-read it, I found the point of The Great Gatsby to be so banal that I haven’t re-read it since high-school. If I was going to re-read any Fitzgerald I’d go back to Tales of the Jazz Age. I think that’s the only Fitzgerald I’ve enjoyed. Similarly, the only Hemingway I liked was his much older writing about Paris in the twenties, A Movable Feast.

  11. smrnda says

    I read On The Road after I’d already read Burroughs and some of Ginsberg. My take was that here were these interesting beat writers, and Kerouac was their buddy who rode along and then decided to document their trips in automobiles. The only section of On the Road which seemed remotely interesting was when Kerouac started to work with some migrant Mexicans.

  12. Mano Singham says


    The comments in this thread have reminded me of books and authors that I overlooked the first time! I like some of Hemingway, especially The Old Man and the Sea. I found Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle altogether too depressing and preachy.

    I have been meaning to try some John Dos Passos but haven’t got around to it. Any suggestions for which one to start with?

    I think I am going to give William S. Burroughs a pass.

  13. Mano Singham says


    I agree. That section with the Mexicans was interesting because it seemed to move at a slower pace.

  14. jimmyfromchicago says

    What about Kurt Vonnegut? He’s an author most people read in their teens.

    Also, you typically run into Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in high school.

  15. jimmyfromchicago says

    I was required to read “Catcher In The Rye” in school, and therefore hate it to this day.

    I can imagine that being Holden’s reaction.

  16. DonDueed says

    I would second the suggestion of Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle would be a good place to start (or end, if you don’t care for it).

  17. Mano Singham says


    I actually love Kurt Vonnegut. I did not include him in my list because he seems ‘lowbrow’ and so my liking him wasn’t that surprising. He seemed to be writing for regular people and did not require critics to explain what he meant.

    As for Williams and Miller, I do not see them as novelists but as playwrights. I have seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman and liked them all but haven’t seen many more of their works.

  18. moarscienceplz says

    Mark Twain I generally like, although I read Huckleberry Finn for the first time only a few years ago and found it good in places but also repetitive.
    Moby Dick I only got through by listening to it on tape while I was working a job that didn’t require a lot of brain power. I was able to just zone out during the really boring parts, had I been reading it I never would have got past the first couple of chapters. That book needs some serious abridging.
    I attended middle and High School during the 70s. I think that is the reason I wasn’t assigned a lot of the “standard” books to read. Never read Catcher in the Rye or Mockingbird. We got assigned things like Bless the Beasts and Children and The Outsiders. The teachers were trying to have a more “relevant” curriculum, but most of the books they chose were really a case of the blind leading the blind, as far as relevance to adolescents was concerned. I knew The Outsiders was a written by a clueless poseur when the protagonist tries pot for the first time and hallucinates seeing his own brain!

  19. jimmyfromchicago says

    You’re right, Williams and Miller aren’t novelists. Miller’s memoir (Timebends?) makes interesting reading, though. He writes about his marriage to Mariilyn Monroe and his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

  20. flex says


    Sorry to get back to you so late. Busy times. I can’t give any recommendation of Dos Passos because while I’ve started 42nd Parallel a couple of times, I’ve never gotten far enough into it for it to grab me. I know that a lot of authors liked Dos Passos’ works, and I’ll try again sometime, but I would hate to recommend something I haven’t finished.

    I confess to liking a lot of “low-brow” stuff. I mean I’ve read Hardy, Fitzgerald and Salinger, but I come back to Irving, Poe, Hammett, and Stout. Hemingway is supposed to be famous for his short, direct, sentences. Well, Dashiell Hammet was using that style long before, and in my opinion more effectively. Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest was Akira Kurosawa’s inspiration for Yojimbo, which was then re-made as A Fistfull of Dollars. It’s not great literature, but it is a gripping read.

    I re-read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels almost as often as I read Pratchett or Wodehouse.

    On the other hand, I loved Heller’s Catch 22 and re-read it on a semi-regular basis.

    But then there are books which should be considered classics because of the themes they explore, but because they were published as science fiction, never seem to make it into the list of greats. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is one of these, and I would call it just as good at exploring the human condition as anything Thomas Hardy wrote. (And there are British authors like John Brunner who have done the same.)

    I haven’t read any Henry Miller, so I can’t comment on those works.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    flex @24: Zelazny was one of those authors who, after reading a page, made me think “I’m in good hands”. I can’t even really explain that, it’s just a feeling I got from his work again and again.

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