Kerouac, Cover-to-Cover: A Live Rendition of “On The Road”

This past weekend, students, parents, and other members of the Colorado College community gathered in Sacred Grounds for a cover-to-cover reading of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the revolutionary 1957 Beat novel. The book chronicles Kerouac’s years spent travelling North America and still represents freedom, adventure, and new experiences to many readers.

David Andrews, a senior English major, was one of these readers; his first experience with “On the Road” was during a trip to Thailand with his brother. “I had a lot of time to read, and I bought a copy of ‘On the Road’ at a bookstore in Kathmandu,” said Andrews. “I really liked it and I ended up reading it twice over the course of one and a half months of travelling with my brother.” With ample time for reflection on the book, Andrews began to consider a live reading of the novel. “I’d read some parts of it aloud to my brother and my friend who was with us, and it was just such a nice book to be read aloud. That got me thinking about how I could bring it back to school.”

Cartoon by Lo Wall

Andrews broke the novel into 21 separate 16-page sections and calculated that 16 pages takes an average person around 35 minutes to read. The event started at 2 p.m. and went on from there. He initially had about 16 people signed up to read, and random people throughout the day volunteered to read as well. “We got about an hour ahead of schedule at one point, so we just read ‘Howl’, which is this poem by Alan Ginsburg who is a Beat poet as well, so there’s a similar writing style,” Andrews said. “It was great. Just a different voice for different parts of the journey because everyone has their own way of reading it.”

Both the readers and the audience contained individuals who had and hadn’t previously read the book. “Some people that read it just read one chapter and it’s beautiful, it’s like a song at some parts,” Andrews said. “The words are important. You can just lay there, and some people were basically just falling asleep. Just sitting and meditating and having someone read to you is super relaxing.”

No matter their level of participation, Andrews felt like every reader and audience member got something from the event. “There’s just something about reading aloud, any book, that I think is therapeutic for people” he said.

With this fresh experience under his belt, Andrews feels that he was eventually more “drawn to the feeling of being on the edge of some understanding. The book plays with a lot, the characters grasping at some truth and pushing to find it and almost figuring it out, but never really reaching it and I feel like that’s the tease of all art . . .You’ve just got to enjoy the process of never getting ‘it’ but also enjoy the feeling of almost getting ‘it.’ Just the way it’s written is like ‘we’re almost there, but we’re never quite going to get it.’”

Along with his extensive praise of the plot and language used in “On the Road,” Andrews also commented on the controversy that comes along with it. The novel is written from the perspective of an upper-class white male who’s “able to go on this whole experience, because his aunt gives him the money. The people that I’ve talked to who’ve been really drawn into the book have been white, straight males,” said Andrews. “The book doesn’t let women speak for themselves, and all of the female characters are defined by the men. The narrator, Sal Paradise, really just reduces women to their physical features, and whenever a woman’s talking, he just brushes them off.” The women who do talk in the novel only ever talk to each other about men, never about other women.

In this vein, one unexpected aspect of the reading was the realization for Andrews that “when you read something aloud, you’re forced to think about how it’s affecting everyone. When I read a book alone, I don’t have to do that as much, but when it’s read aloud in front of a group of people, it’s like ‘Wow, what’s this 1957 book making people think and feel right now?’” he asked.

While Andrews would be open to replicating the event with a different book, he feels that it would have to come about naturally like this one did. “I haven’t read a book that I wanted to do this for more than ‘On the Road.’ I think it’s just so perfectly suited to it. You can play music at the parts that talk about music; it just sounds really good aloud; it’s a good length. So, I’d have to come to something naturally to want to do it again.” The possibilities for readings like Andrews’ are endless, and he encourages any interested students to start an event like this of their own.

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