I encountered The Dharma Bums for the first time in college, on a classmate’s shelf. She gushed about the book, but I was more interested in her roommate and didn’t pay enough attention. Many years later, I finally read it on a lonely road trip through New Hampshire during an unusually cold May. Snow drenched the higher elevations and my camping experience became uncomfortable and risky. I paged through Kerouac’s autobiographical novel and wrote two dozen poems. I finished the treasured Beat tome in front of a roaring campfire, beside a bubbling river, before crawling into my sleeping bag. A near-perfect reading experience.
This book is sometimes ignored, due no doubt to its similarity to the more famous On the Road. The sprightly Japhy Rader resembles the more famous Dean Moriarty, though one is based on Gary Snyder and the other Neal Cassady. But this is no retelling, not even a prequel. The Dharma Bums has a charm of its own…from its bookend experiences in the high mountains to its evocative exploration of Buddhism. Of course, the journeys Kerouac’s narrators take may be similar. He always seems to be searching for truth. Does he find it? That’s up to the reader, but the real lesson is that the search is what is important.
Read this book and listen carefully to Kerouac’s barbarous prose. Hear the message both in the words and behind them. Break out of your simple routine and hit the road. Climb a mountain. Fall asleep in a treetop. Meditate for three days. Change your life and broaden your mind. The Beat generation and the counterculture that followed may have had their problems and failures, but at least they tried. And they got one thing absolutely right: life is a journey and if we don’t keep moving, we die.