Tag Archives: Travels with Charley

Dream Journal: Travels with Chuck D.

15 Aug

Voyage

Jack Kerouac kept a dream journal. This log of nightly dreams was later published by City Lights Press in 1960 as Book of Dreams. Even before it was published, though, Kerouac encouraged others to pay attention to their dreams. He told Allen Ginsberg to infuse his poetry with his dream life.

When I was a high school student, my psychology teacher assigned us the task of keeping a dream journal. Isn’t that the most fantastic homework assignment you can think of?! According to psychology, we dream every night, but only some nights we remember our dreams. Keeping a dream journal was supposed to help us better remember our dreams. I know some people who hardly ever dream, but I have wild dreams—especially after eating pizza!

This past Friday night I had a doozy of a literary dream! I dreamt that I was writing a book entitled Travels with Charlie, which was a riff on John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Steinbeck’s book is a chronicle (it was purported to be nonfiction but it’s since come out that portions of it were made up) of the American road trip he took with his standard-sized poodle. My book, however, was about Charles Darwin’s travels. Incidentally, in real, waking life I once edited a reissue of his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle. I didn’t make the connection in the dream, but perhaps there was some connection between Steinbeck’s poodle and Darwin’s Beagle. In the dream, I was retracing Darwin’s footsteps for a book about his “road trip.” I kept referring to Charles Darwin as Chuck D. or Chuckie D.—like the rapper!

I definitely need to start a dream journal!

Do you keep a dream journal? What is the wildest dream that you’ve had lately?

How Many Stars Should a Book Get on Goodreads?

7 Aug

redpony

Yesterday I wrote about my experience on Goodreads. I think most people use it to write and read reviews of books, but truth be told I don’t do that. The only “review” I give is ranking a book through Goodreads’ star system, and I only do that because it seems sort of mandatory.

I actually feel a sense of anxiety in ranking books. I have very idiosyncratic tastes. I often read books that have gotten a lot of hype and dislike them. But give me a book that the general reading public finds “strange” or that “no one” has heard of and I smatter it with stars.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have different tastes and that a book can be worthwhile even if we didn’t enjoy it. I know that sounds strange, crazy even, but hear me out: I don’t particularly love the story of Hamlet (I mean, come on, it has a ghost in it), but the dialogue, structure, and literary techniques are genius, pure genius.

Also, tastes change over time. I didn’t like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars the first time I read it. It was required summer reading when I was in high school, and I was decidedly not into love stories or books that heavily emphasized ethnicity issues, a topic my school focused on a lot. When I read it again in college, though, I was drawn into the story itself as if I were reading it for the first time. Sometimes I don’t even re-read a book and my opinion of it changes. I was looking over my Goodreads list and was surprised at how I’d rated some books. Books with three or four stars are the trickiest. I can really enjoy a book yet give it a lower ranking just because it’s not something I feel will stand the test of time or because it doesn’t have that extra little something. In contrast, sometimes I’ll give a book a slightly higher ranking than my gut reaction to it because it is a good book and I don’t want to discredit it even though in my mind there was something missing from it. See, this is why I should probably actually write reviews!

Anyway, here’s a bit of insight into the method of my ranking madness:

  • Five stars—the highest a book can get—are only for books that I feel have changed my life in some way, that are impressively written, and/or that I would reread. They’re the books I would own a copy of, have either marked up profusely or am careful to keep pristine, and would selfishly not lend out. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a book I gave five stars to. An eighteenth-century British novel, it still feels strikingly fresh and relevant to today’s postmodern literature. Read it. It’s wild.
  • Four stars are for books I enjoyed a lot and got absorbed in reading and would recommend to others. I would want to own a copy of the book. I gave J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye four stars, for example, because I recognize it’s a well-written, thoughtful book with deep implications for our culture but it didn’t really move me. I read it when I was a teenager and I read it again a year or two ago for my alumnae book club and my reaction was the same.
  • Three stars are for books that are good—good in the sense that they are solid reading for on the subway, on a plane, or at the beach. Maybe the story was appealing or maybe there was something interesting about the writing style that got me thinking. I’d pass the book along to my mom or a friend without wanting it back. A book like Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday gets three stars. It met my expectations but didn’t blow me away.
  • Two stars are for books that somehow miss the mark for me personally. They’re for books I couldn’t get into, that tried too hard, that maybe had an interesting concept but failed to execute it properly, or that didn’t use interesting diction. Oftentimes they’re for books I was excited to read but weren’t worth the hype. They’re for books where I tend to feel cheated for some reason. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women gets two stars from me. I’d heard so much about this book I was really expecting it to be something special, but it was kinda a snooze fest. Sorry.
  • One star is for books that irritated me. John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony is an example of a book I only gave one star to. I read it back in high school and maybe I’d feel differently now but at the time I remember feeling tortured as I read it. (Conversely, I gave five stars to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Cannery Row.)

Do you think I’m too harsh? Too fickle? How do you rank books on Goodreads? Do you ever go back and change your ranking?

Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written

20 Aug

Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial.  Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions.  The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing.  The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective.  One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value.  Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.

Take Of Mice and Men.  This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school.  I didn’t like the story.  The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative.  Still, it was a classic!  John Steinbeck!  I should like it, right?  I didn’t.  I moved on to The Red Pony.  Hated it even more.  But I was determined to like John Steinbeck.  Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books.  Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard.  Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.

Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book.  And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author.  If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.

I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books.  And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard.  For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.

However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them.  When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot.  One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll.  Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.

I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy.  Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them.  But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance.  Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.

One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.  The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze.  It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary.  It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius.  It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!

Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:

  • Kerouac’s first language was not English.  He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual.  When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English.  It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
  • While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing.  Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times.  He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
  • The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels.  One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness.  In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles?  The one that goes:

… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

  • Kerouac read voraciously.  He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books.  In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read.  These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
  • In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music.  If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose.  He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.

Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.

 

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.