2021 Book Reviews III
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
On the Road is one of those books that I was surprised in myself that I hadn’t read, so it seemed about time to rectify that. A tale of wanderlust and search for personal meaning, I hoped it would answer my question of whether a life of adventure was the antidote to my own life’s ailments. It’s fictionalised autobiographical nature makes it a very different work to if it was pure fiction, and in my opinion gives it a lot more credibility. It is a snapshot of a pre Civil Rights Movement America, and Kerouac’s attitudes towards Black and Latinx people and women reflect that, making for a jarring and uncomfortable read at times. I think this is one of the ways that it is more meritous due to its proximity to the truth - that’s the way Kerouac really thought about other people, and it serves of an important reminder that his judgments are reflective of the society he lived in in the very near past. Almost every character in this book, and certainly the entirety of the central cast, is deeply unlikeable. Despite Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) having an almost deific reverence for Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), Moriarty is the worst of the lot, and if I didn’t know he was a real figure, I would’ve assumed he was allegoric for Kerouac’s legendary Benzedrine addiction. The book, along with the Beat Generation to which Kerouac belonged, serves as a deconstruction of the American dream, and seems just as timely today while the American dream could well be in its death throes. I understand why a lot of people hate On the Road, but I loved it - Sal Paradise is full of bullshit, but it’s authentic bullshit, and I rate that.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
After finishing On the Road, I decided I hadn’t quite got enough of Jack Kerouac and wanted to know what happened in the next chapter of his life, particularly as I can see myself converting to Buddhism and living alone in the woods a lot more readily than I can going on a string of month long drug & alcohol benders while speeding back and forth across America, flirting with death the whole way. Kerouac may have chosen a new moniker for himself in The Dharma Bums, but his attempts to adopt a new persona aren’t wholly successful, and there is plenty of Sal Paradise still evident in Ray Smith the self-proclaimed bodhisattva. This time round the cast are at least more likeable, even if they still didn’t meet my personal threshold for likeability, and while I found Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) a hypocrite in many ways, he at least seems like a positive force in Smith’s life in contrast to the powerful toxicity of Dean Moriarty (who also appears in The Dharma Bums, albeit briefly, under the pseudonym of Cody Pomeray). Kerouac spends the novel desperately trying to reconcile Buddhism and his desire to attain nirvana with his Americanness, which one could argue entraps him in sansara forever. As an exploration of Eastern philosophy in the Western world, I found it romantic and compelling, and enjoyed how it didn’t shy away from the practical difficulties of the cross-continental marriage of ideals (incidentally, Alan Watts also makes an appearance as “Arthur Whane”). This book reinforced all the things I felt after reading Siddhartha; that is to sit with my legs crossed for a long time and try to forget how to think.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
How to Be an Antiracist is powerful, to-the-point and uncompromising. Professor Kendi displays that he is clearly an excellent teacher by bringing so much clarity to the readers of this book, his students, but at the same time refusing to coddle them at any point. He is equal parts vulnerable and incisive as he hones in on exactly what racism is and what we have a collective duty to do about it, all while sharing his own story and experiences with racism. His combination of precise definitions with vital context make this not only a perfect blueprint for antiracism but also an undefeatable argument as to why it’s imperative that we all strive to become one.