Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was one of the most famous American writers of the mid-twentieth century. As a key member of a group of writers known as the “Beat Generation,” his works explored the role of the individual in post-war America. His most famous work, On the Road (1957), has sold millions of copies and continues to inspire seekers of nonconformity and spiritual uplift. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at the life and works of the King of the Beats, and along the way offers some thoughts on how to read literature from the past, even when the churning world progresses past some (but not all) of the ideas within.
Okay, the new podcast is off to a great start! Many thanks to all the listeners, wherever you are, and whoever you may be.
It seems that a lot of you have the same question I do:
Is literature dying?
I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a straw man! I get it, I get it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred that kind of question results in a “No, it isn’t!” We all tune in for the fake drama, and in the end the host concludes what we all knew that he or she would. Literature’s not dying! It’s stronger than ever! Thank you for listening.
But…this might be that one hundredth time!
More to the point, I am not sure of the answer yet.
That’s right! I didn’t come up with this question as a clever way of attracting attention. This is not a disguised way of setting up a podcast about how great literature is, and let’s celebrate how wonderful it all is, and aren’t we all just spectacular beings for celebrating it all together, here in this celebration. This celebration of literature. And us. The lovers of literature.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that literature is great. I’ve always thought it was powerful. A force for good. I believed in it.
Now I look around and…well, I’m not so sure we need it anymore.
What did we get from literature and great books that we can’t get elsewhere?
Reading is wonderful, of course…but so were handwritten letters. So was a morning newspaper.
We’ve moved on from those things. And maybe we’ve simply moved on from literature.
We don’t read as much as we used to–well, that’s not exactly true, is it? We probably read more than ever. And we probably write more than ever. We have a very literate society. It’s just that it’s all taking place on the internet.
Do we sit down and read big novels like Anna Karenina or Middlemarch? Maybe a few of us do, now and then. And some contemporary novels still sell copies, and some of those are weighty and important and cover serious topics and deserve their place on the shelf of Great Books. Some people still read them, just as some people still get their morning newspaper.
But are they essential?
It’s easy to blame ourselves for the declining sales and reduced position that literature has in today’s world. It’s all our fault! We’re easily distracted! We’re stupid! We prefer our phones or our videogames or social networking because we’re lazy and dumb. We used to be so much better.
I don’t think that’s the whole story.
I think we need to look harder at literature itself.
Why did we read before? For entertainment? Escapism? Moral instruction? Curiosity? Empathy? To better understand what it’s like to be another person in a world different from our own?
Isn’t all of that available now on Facebook? Blogs? Netflix?
Maybe it’s not our fault that literature has lost some of its relevance. Maybe literature just isn’t good enough at delivering what it’s supposed to deliver. Maybe it can’t compete.
So in that spirit, I have a podcast called The History of Literature. And yes, the title suggests that it’s a straightforward narrative. You know how those go. Book, book, book, author, author, author, period, period, period. We march from one phase to the next as easily as slipping out of our robe and into a warm bath.
But this isn’t a warm bath. It’s more of a quest. I feel like I’m out there battling monsters.
Yes, I’m going to cover as much great literature as I can. And yes, there will be times when I’ll be swept away with enthusiasm, because I’ll forget my concerns and embrace the power of literature. I know the feelings I get when I encounter the sublime. I recall the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion I’ve felt for novels and poems and stories and plays in the past.
In the past. Did you catch that? In the past.
Is it the same now? Or has something changed? Are we headed toward a sunset?
That’s what we’ll be exploring. Yes, these are undeniably great books. We can enjoy them, admire them, celebrate them–and we’ll be doing plenty of that, I’m not a zombie or a robot or a masochist.
But we’ll also be asking this more difficult question: What can these great books offer us today?
Join us on the quest!
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you read as much as you once did? If not, why not? Where do you turn instead for the things that literature used to provide? Let us know in the comments!
For podcast listeners (or those of you new to the idea), the easiest way to get the podcast automatically downloaded to your phone (or tablet or computer or whatever else you like to listen to) is probably to subscribe via iTunes. You can direct download the mp3s, stream episodes, and find more subscription options at the main site, historyofliterature.com.
Do you have another preferred delivery mechanism I’m not providing? Let me know!
I know there are a lot of good translations out there (and a lot of bad ones). I’ve found this one by Stephen Mitchell to be the best. But is a fresh new translation enough to make us care about some old king blah blah fighting monsters with an axe blah blah blah?
The whole post is worth reading, but here’s a taste:
To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.
Virginia made a cameo here on the Jacke blog once before, when she visited Stonehenge. Glad to have you back, Virginia!
Let’s try a little K.T. Tunstall for our onward and upward. With the legendary Daryl Hall. Can’t we all just go hang out there, at Daryl’s house?
Here’s a reminder that life has moments of joy as well as sorrow.
What a great picture. Why do I think that Vonnegut must have said something funny (unexpected and acerbic and witty), and Irving started laughing uncontrollably, and finally Vonnegut joined in because Irving’s laughter was infectious…
Oh, I know, I know. I should be promoting my latest book (price drop! we broke the buck!). I have another Object almost ready to go. I should be working on that. But how can I resist this one? Robie Macauley and Arthur Koestler – themselves two titans of the mid-century literary scene. And…
…and that’s Flannery O’Connor! Laughing! Here’s a close-up:
Love this! And guess where they were? The Amana Colonies. Of all places. The Amana Colonies. This is such a spectacular piece of the story I hardly know what to do with myself.
God bless H.G. Wells. He seems like kind of a decent guy, and as a kid I loved his books (The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, etc.). My parents had a set of a History of the World he’d written, which I tried to read about a million times but could never get beyond five pages. I don’t think they had either; it had the classic feel of “Oh, that was that year that everyone bought that one book that nobody actually read.”
Something about him always made me think he was kind of a bumbler. Why? Because I realized that other respected writers didn’t take him seriously? I’m not sure. It may have been the cover of my copy of The Time Machine, which had a desperate looking man on it. I always thought that was him. Earnest. Forthright. A Serious Person in capital letters. And…sort of buffoonish. Maybe this is unfair. But it stuck with me.