Big Books 2007
In Modest Praise Of The Roads Not Taken
September 2007 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Jack Kerouac's definitive Beat Generation manifesto On the Road, and the book's original publisher took note. Last month Viking not only published an anniversary edition of the book, but it also published, for the first time, Kerouac's original, unedited, scroll text in book form, along with introductory essays from literary critics Howard Cunnell, Penny Vlagopoulos, and George Mouratidis. In addition, Viking also published Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think) by New York Times culture reporter and Hip historian John Leland. In short, the publisher treated the book's silver anniversary like a bona fide cultural event, and the media followed suit.
Formidable critic Luc Sante tackled the unedited scroll in the Aug. 19 New York Times Sunday Book Review; a few days earlier, the paper of record commemorated the original On the Road with a long piece about the book, including online links to the Times' original 1957 reviews of the book by Gilbert Millstein and David Dempsey, a podcast of actor Will Patton reading the novel's first chapter, and considerable post space to Kerouac and the book on its literary blog Paper Cuts. The Aug. 19 Book Review also included a last page featuring a collection of foreign On the Road covers from the past 50 years.
The Gray Lady wasn't the only publication pulling out all the stops. Louis Menand tackles On the Road and the Beats in general in his Oct. 1 New Yorker essay "Drive, He Wrote." Christopher Reynolds revisited sites from On the Road for the Los Angeles Times. City Lights just paperback-reissued You'll Be Okay: My Life With Jack Kerouac, the memoir of Edie Kerouac-Parker, Kerouac's late wife. And the Library of America just published Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957-1960, a compendium of On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Tristessa, Lonesome Traveler, and selections from the author's early journals. And this is just the tip of the media iceberg from the past two months.
No offense to On the Road or Kerouac--there were times in life when Desolation Angels felt like life support--but maybe we've gone a wee bit overboard here. More than a few of these articles note that On the Road has never been out of print since its original publication and that it still sells more than 100,000 copies a year. Such numbers do reflect the existence of some kind of cultural phenomenon. They also suggest that every year, a new generation of readers digest the exact same thing.
Now, we don't have the space to take a headlong shot at the whole idea of the literary canon here, but we do think the very idea of a canon, be it academic or even sub- or countercultural, isn't always going to steer you in the right direction. People are supposedly reading less these days anyway, and the idea of less people reading fewer things strikes us as a potentially tragic situation.
For Big Books 2007 we take aim at a few sacred cows just to tip them, suggesting a few other writers out there worth checking out. You know, authors who get overlooked by the academy, book clubs, reprint market, and even independent bookstores, cool-hunting literary blogs, and navel-gazing enterprises that supposedly skirt the so-called mainstream such as The Believer. You know the sort: "If you like David Foster Wallace, then check out Joseph McElroy or Raymond Queneau. If you like Peter Handke, check out Thomas Bernhard. If you like Knut Hamsun, check out or Stig Dagerman or the insanely imaginative and prolific Halldór Laxness. If you like Mikhail Bulgakov, check out Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz's Insatiability. If you like Proust, check out Miklós Bánffy. If you like Anton Chekhov, check out Yasunari Kawabata." Or take the charge of one of the essayists included herein and dig into the works of William Sloane, Anwar Accawi, Bruce Brooks, Tayeb Salih, Kim McLarin, or Gary Younge.
Just don't misunderstand the sentiment here. We're not saying a canon, however defined, is bad. We're merely suggesting that it should never be enough.
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