Longtime blog readers know I almost never give bad reviews of books. Not in public, at any rate. Part of this is professional courtesy. I don’t want to stomp on another author’s toes, especially not when I might meet her or him at a conference at some point and have to answer for my words. Some of it is because I don’t finish books I don’t like, and I don’t review books I haven’t finished. So I almost never have an opportunity to write a bad review.
Until today, apparently.
Because I’ve now read the American classic On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. My first rule doesn’t apply, because he’s deceased, so it’s not like I have to worry about running into him at a conference. (And if I do, I have much more serious things to be concerned about at that point.) And even if he were alive, I think the book’s done just fine for itself over the years, so it’s not like my opinion will hurt its sales much.
As for not finishing books I don’t like? I finished this one because we selected it as the book for the second half of my library’s On Our Mind reading program this year. The theme was “Live. Travel. Adventure,” and I thought we couldn’t go wrong with an American classic. On the Road. What better way to represent travel and adventures?
Except I had never read it. I just assumed it was a good book, because “American classic.”
You know what happens when you assume, right? You’re forced to finish a book you absolutely loathe.
Can I see how this novel might hold an important place in American literature? Sure. I could also see (theoretically) how studying it could be worth while. But I don’t read books to study them anymore. I read books primarily for enjoyment. And there was nothing for me to enjoy in this book whatsoever. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the voice, and there was no plot to speak of.
It started out fair enough. A guy decides to hitchhike across the country to go see his friends in Denver. He makes some foolish decisions, but whatever. One way or the other, he makes it there. The journey itself is pretty boring, from a narrative perspective. It’s basically a laundry list of events. “I did this, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” Nothing really to connect them except sequence.
Surely, it must improve later on, right?
He gets to Denver and decides that’s a pretty lame place as well, so he keeps traveling. One place after the other. That’s all the book is. Traveling traveling traveling. No real concrete goals other than to be somewhere other than where he is at the time. It’s a rambling narrative that weaves around like an alcoholic at 3am.
There are no hidden witticisms. Nothing redeeming about him or his friends. He sleeps, drinks, and drugs his way from one random occurrence to another. I can’t even call them “events,” because an event at least implies something interesting happened. This is like the world’s lamest Facebook account. In fact, this wouldn’t even be interesting if it were presented in Facebook form. It would just be a series of pictures of people and places, with no real information given about any of them.
I loathed this book. I would have put it down after 50 pages if I could have, but instead I was trapped finishing the thing, because there was no way I was going to lead a book discussion on it if I hadn’t read it in its entirety. Which is a good illustration of why forced reading in school turns avid readers into people who hate reading.
Call it a classic if you must. For me, On the Road is nothing more than the thing that took hours of my life and will never give them back.
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