Tim’s Book Club #3 08 January 2010

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

I read this in the summer of 2009, while we were out on tour. I read quite a lot when we're touring, partly because I hate flying so much and I find reading on planes is quite a good distraction. I found the book really, really inspiring. I had a similar feeling when I read another Kerouac book, On The Road. There's something about his writing which really appeals to me. It's probably quite a male thing, actually, that yearning to jump on a flat-top train carriage and lie in the sun all the way from one coast of America to the other, or some sort of romantic dream.

The book is based very closely on Kerouac's life, with pretty much every character based on a real person. So there's a character called Ray Smith which is  him and his friend in the book, Japhy Ryder, is based on a poet called Gary Snyder. Plus Allen Ginsberg makes an appearance and that sort of thing. They're all a bunch of poets and amateur Buddhists and they spend a lot of time reading poetry, getting drunk, talking about Buddhism, writing these crazy spiritual haiku and going on big walks up mountains. They're basically drifters, but poetic, philosophical drifters.

It's a very romantic story, I suppose, but it also has a lot of very interesting thoughts about the way we live our lives and what matters and what doesn't matter. All of the characters have different opinions on those things. So it's quite an intellectually stimulating book as well as being set against the backdrop of the great outdoors and Kerouac going on these directionless adventures. He goes on a couple of great train journeys and also hitchhikes back and forth across the States. And it ends with him going off to a fire lookout station on top of a mountain in Washington State. He has to stay in this little hut for several months, all on his own, thousands of feet up. He just sits there looking out for fires and thinking about the world.

I would say that my character and beliefs have been shaped by reading books like this. I'm not the kind of person who'll take anything that's been handed down to me and I don't really feel that I've adopted any sort of belief system directly. But I'm interested in people's philosophical approaches to life. I guess the only thing I really believe in is people and it's always interesting to experience the psychological studies of people that you get in a really good book. I find that definitely shapes the way I think about myself and the way I think about other people.

With the Dharma Bums, some of the Buddhist stuff is quite rambling and almost nonsensical, although some of it is very beautiful in its approach to worldly things. But I don't necessarily subscribe to it all. A lot of the book is about each of them thinking the other person's point of view is nonsense and that debate goes on throughout, which is interesting in its own right. But for me, personally, I was almost more interested in the characters of the drifters and what happened to them during their adventuring through the American badlands, the people they meet, and what it means to roam like that. It definitely awakened in me a sense of wanting to go somewhere. I don't know where. But just to go on an adventure, meet people and have no idea where you're heading.


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