That’s Kerouacky! 02/11/2013
I read Tropic of Cancer during my senior year of college, and I have a confession to make: I didn’t like it. Not even the dirty parts.
You may think that this doesn’t warrant a confession, but I felt really guilty about not enjoying an acclaimed piece of literature. I also hated The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Reading these books made me react in a gut-churning, visceral way that I just couldn’t explain. Looking back on it, I think my extreme reaction had to do with where I was in my life. I was graduating from college and single-mindedly preparing to do my part by entering the workforce. I ignored the little voice that whispered, “But backpacking around Europe would be fun!” and “By getting a job you’re just supporting the capitalistic culture that we must reject! You’re such a consumer!” Actually, that second little voice may have been my boyfriend. But the point is, I had a goal. And no matter how attractive those little voices were, or how big a part of me did want to drop everything and go Kerouacing around the country, I simply couldn’t embrace the Beat philosophy of non-conformism when I was doing everything I could to conform.
But then something funny happened. A few weeks ago, I had an evening to myself so I took Tropic of Cancer from my bookshelf and could not put it down. I found it inspiring. Even the dirty parts.
Anyone who has ever helped me move will tell you that my collection of books is ridiculously large. They were stacked two deep on my bookshelves even before my husband added his collection to mine. But despite the desperate urgings to pare down that I get from friends as they struggle to carry box after box of books to each new walk-up I call home, I can’t get rid of them. They’re a chronicle of my life. I stand in front of my shelf and think, I read that one when I was in China and that one when I was in Rome. That one was a gift from my college roommate and that one made me cry. Love notes fall from the pages of some and the pages of others are filled with quickly scribbled thoughts and underlines. But more important than the sentimental value of these books is what a re-read years later can teach me about myself. People evolve slowly and almost imperceptibly, but when my reaction to a book that I read years ago has changed, it’s a powerful reminder that I have changed. And that’s worth all the box-carrying shoulder strain in the world.