It recently came to my attention that Buzzfeed posted an article called “65 Books You Need to Read In Your 20s,” and I immediately knew Jack Kerouac would make the cut. After all, so many people have told me Kerouac is for young people.
First, though, at number 18 came Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The write up states:
Another English syllabus special, Hemingway’s tight prose and peerless storytelling are somehow more resonant when you are reading it on your own. Or as my colleague Matt put it: “I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than five pages of Hemingway growing up, but for some reason I picked this up in my post-graduation haze and was mesmerized.”
I can see that. I was none too fond of Hemingway when I had to read The Snows of Kilimanjaro in class but post-grad enjoyed The Sun Also Rises. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read it and have been thinking I should reread it.
So what do we hear when we get to Kerouac, at number 34? A solitary, cynical line:
So that you’ll realize the way you felt about this book in high school has totally changed.
Really? Kerouac made the list just so that the blogger could diss On the Road? I’m all for personal growth and maturity, and I can certainly understand how some books are more relatable when you’re young, but, even if one thinks that’s the case with On the Road, why suggest someone “waste” valuable reading time rereading it then? Furthermore, why single out On the Road and not, say, Catcher in the Rye? And, if On the Road is deemed a book for teenagers, what are we to make of all the legions of adults who read Harry Potter?
I first read On the Road when I was a teenager, and I read it again when I was in my twenties. And guess what? I continue to pick it up and find inspiration from it. In fact, I think I appreciate certain aspects of it more now than I did when I read it in my teens. Therefore, I’d like to propose reasons why you should read On the Road in your twenties:
- Jack Kerouac who? You were busy with homework, video games, and the mall, and never read anything but assigned reading—which never included Jack Kerouac. That’s okay, you can read On the Road now.
- You understand more about history and politics now that you’re older and consequently can better understand the significance of this novel being written by an author who served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
- You had heard about the Great Depression, but you didn’t know back then how that was tied to literary movements, and now you can see how money has shaped the art from The Great Gatsby to The Grapes of Wrath to On the Road.
- Much of contemporary literature uses a conversational voice so it never occurred to you that Jack Kerouac’s voice, diction, and stream of consciousness were revolutionary for his time period.
- You’ve delved into Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, amongst others, and now can make your own judgment about whether or not the term “The Beat Generation” is useful and appropriate.
- The main characters in On the Road are in their twenties. The struggles they face growing up and becoming mature adults are the same ones you now face.
- You weren’t allowed to take a bus across the country when you were a teenager. But now you can!
- You lived a quiet life in the suburbs as a teenager and weren’t exposed to people who’d been in jail, habitually did drugs, married and divorced, and didn’t hold down steady jobs as adults. Those characters may feel less foreign to you as you get older, and you may see them differently now.
- When you read the novel as a teenager, you thought Dean Moriarty was the hero. You’re not so sure anymore. This makes Kerouac’s portrayal of him even more intriguing.
- You skipped past all those setting descriptions, but now you realize they are pure poetry.
- The frenetic travels in the novel seemed exhilarating but confusing or pointless the first time you read the novel. Now, you can examine that as an intentional plot device.
- You didn’t think much of the religious aspects of the novel, but now, having heard more about Kerouac’s Catholicism and Buddhism, you can’t help but analyze their significance. This could change your perception.
- You enjoyed the romance of “the Mexican girl,” but you didn’t think too much about Kerouac’s portrayal of Mexican and Mexican American field workers, and now you can draw parallels to today’s discussions on the treatment of certain ethnic groups in America.
- You want to learn how to write better dialogue.
- You read the characters through a contemporary lens when you were younger, but now that you know more about the 1940s and ‘50s you have a greater understanding of the social norms of the time and how they relate to masculinity and gender roles. This can allow you to reexamine issues of identity, misogyny, and power in a novel that includes heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, male leads, and female minor characters.
- You realize in many ways the novel is a love story of America.
- You have actually listened to jazz by your twenties and read a little about music theory and now understand its role in the novel and its influence on Kerouac’s prose stylings.
- Cars have always been a part of your life, but now that more people your age are eschewing driving, you have a greater appreciation for the socio-economic dynamics of car culture.
- You realize that maybe in your younger years you were a bit of a follower, like Sal Paradise, and are now seizing the moment and establishing your own life.
- You want to learn how to experiment with syntax.
What would you add to this list?