REVIEW: On the Road

I was somewhat startled to find this book in the English language section of the bookstore in Capo D’Orlando, Sicily. But maybe the owner had read it and thought it might find a buyer among the half-dozen English speaking tourists here who were born before the publication date (1957), and felt guilty about never having read this American classic. If so, he was right. I was at university at the time, had plenty to read and thought that this book was too hip for me. I confess that while I enjoyed reading it, it’s still too hip for me – or I’m too square.

The fly leaf inside the cover says that the author, Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922. “In 1947, enthused by bebop (music), the rebel attitude of his friend, Neal Cassady, and the throng of hobos, drug addicts and hustlers he found in New York, he decided to discover America and hitchhike across the country. His writing was openly autobiographical and he developed a style he referred to as ‘spontaneous prose’, which he used to record the experiences of the beat generation. Kerouac wrote a number of hugely influential and popular novels – most famously the international bestseller On the Road. As much as anything, he came to represent a philosophy, a way of life.”

Jack Kerouac

On the face of it this is a semi-autobiographical novel about an educated writer’s travels across the USA and Mexico with one particular male friend whom he admired, and in the company of other friends who drop in and out searching for kicks: alcohol, drugs, music and sex. Almost always destitute, they party all night and sleep during the day, moving from place to place mostly as hitchhikers, as jalopy drivers, and occasionally on buses. The original version of On the Road was typed by Kerouac on a scroll 37 meters long (to save time in changing sheets in the typewriter). It included explicit sex and the real names of some of the author’s friends; these were removed or changed at the insistence of the publisher, Viking. I notice that the original version has been published in 2008.

As for the ‘spontaneous prose’ used by Kerouac, it does make the novel marginally more difficult to read, but it also makes the emotions, the thoughts and the settings – bizarre as they sometimes are – more real. If I had known about the scroll version, I would have bought it instead, as being more authentic. Sex was a primary objective on the road, and the edited version mentions it only in passing.

As I reflect on the novel and its author, it seems that the novel created a sensation at the time it was published. I think that most readers today would wonder what the point of it all was. Was it really just irresponsible kicks and living life at maximum velocity and intensity. Kerouac’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, says that the author was a committed Catholic. But there is none of this in the novel (except for doodles in the original margin). Kerouac also suffered from mental illness. Politically, he was conservative. But I don’t get a sense of the author’s values. If I were able to, that might answer the major question I have after reading this novel: Why?

Misconceptions About Writing, No. 1 (of 6)

Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

I quote from her document below.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception #1. Writing gets done without writing.

I usually don’t answer the phone during my writing hours, but when I do, it’s often a friend or family member calling, and the conversation goes something like this.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing,” I answer.
“Really?” she says, as if this were news, as if it weren’t the same answer I’ve
been giving for years now. We talk a while, she tells me about her day, I
complain about the essay that’s tying me in knots or I exalt in the final revision of a poem that’s been eluding me all summer. We say goodbye and hang up.
A week or two later she calls again.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing.”
Again she seems surprised. We talk a while, say goodbye, and after a few
minutes of sharpening pencils (I don’t even use pencils) or fantasizing about a six-figure advance on some book I’ll never begin, or staring out the window where people with real jobs and leather briefcases are hurrying to meetings, I get back to work. Later in the week while I’m getting a haircut, my stylist asks if I’m still writing, as if it were a bad habit, like smoking, that I surely must have kicked by now. It occurs to me to ask him if he’s still cutting hair, but I decide it would be mean-spirited. Besides, it takes energy to talk, and I need all my energy for the chapter revision that’s backing up in my head. So I just look in the mirror and nod politely.
Occasionally even writer friends seem surprised to find me writing, just as I’m sometimes amazed to catch them in the act. I realize this makes no sense. How else do I suppose their poems, stories, essays, songs, lectures and journal entries get written? Yet the fantasy that writing gets done without writing is so appealing, it’s a hard one to release—like the notion of babies being delivered pain free, via stork or cabbage leaf. Watching the freshly polished baby asleep in a blanket beside his exhausted mother, it’s easy to forget that just hours ago he was a squirming sack of blood and skin and primal scream. And reading someone else’s published novel—or a finished poem, short story or essay—it’s hard to imagine the often tedious, painful, messy, sometimes joyous, always life-changing process by which it was delivered, kicking and screaming, into the light.
Like sex or childbirth, writing is almost always a private act. Others don’t see us doing it, and the popular media do little to dispel the notion that writing gets done without writing. In movies about writers, the writers do everything but write.
They sit in dark cafes, dance on tables, smoke one thin black cigarette after
another, slap their lovers, drive too fast or drink too much. In the few scenes where they’re actually writing, the camera doesn’t linger. Who would pay seven dollars to watch someone sit at a desk and write? So the camera seeks out something more interesting—the bottle of Scotch, the unmade bed, the cocktail dress dropped on the floor—and moves on. One quick shot of the writer’s hand on the keyboard (typing, what else, “The End”) and he’s heading for the door, grabbing the finished manuscript and cigarettes on his way out.
No wonder we imagine writing gets done without writing. And no wonder we believe anyone can write a book. The truth is, anyone can’t write a book. Only the person who writes the book can write the book.”

How The Times’ Best Seller List Comes Together

There was an article in The New York Times on 2 October 2020, written by the “Best Seller Lists Staff” and I quote from it below:

“Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

“Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’ best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

“As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

“The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

“So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or I.S.B.N.s, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

“By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

“We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

“Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

“The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

“During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert, we sing some book titles to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

“Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.”

This sounds like a complicated process, but maybe it’s the fairest way to do it.