in general, reading

My apartment building has an event going on – a blind date with books. In this, participants part with a book from their personal collection, the organizers wrap books in opaque paper and write the first sentence of the book on the front. If you find that sentence to be interesting, you pick up the book and walk away.

So far so good.

As part of our Diwali cleaning, my wife and I reorganized our books into a few stacks – those we want to read some time in the future, those we want to read in the near future, those we’ve read, and those we will never read.

From that last stack, I picked up a book that I started to read and just, couldn’t. I decided that this book is popular enough that someone will like having it. But for me, it just wasn’t the right fit.

But, as I was walking out of our home and into the elevator, I realized that I have a bout of separation anxiety. As the metal box sped downwards, I thought about it.

I dislike this book, I dislike the author, I dislike the entire concept. Yet, I had serious anxiety about giving it away. I looked the book all over. It’s priced at seventeen dollars. I probably didn’t pay that much. But it’s still worth something. The font is nice, the line spacing is comfortable, the paper rich.

Yet, it’s the content. The book is The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is said to be a pioneer of the Beat Generation, a 1950s literary movement related to a post World War II, spiritual, anti-materialist thinking, and apparently the the precursor to hippie culture of the next decade. The book itself is recommended as a sort of intro to Kerouac, a good first read to dip into his interpretation of Zen Buddhism.

So I was surprised when the book was just… crass. It was a warped appropriation of Buddhism. The title is very apt – it’s a couple of aimless bums who are exploring Buddhism from the bits and pieces they come across. They have no conception of dharma, having established that the author will just jump on a moving train and stowaway his way to another place instead of building a life and living it. That ideology of stealing his way on to a goods train just rubbed me the wrong way and it was downhill from there.

For Westerners, this romanticism of a life of running might seem intriguing and beautiful. But that is not in any way what we’ve been taught to be the meaning of life or spirituality in India. If you think about it, being a bhikshu is the very beginning of Buddhism. Yet the way Kerouac does it, alternating between binge partying and self-exploration atop a mountain seems haphazard and decidedly crude.

I could not digest this book and though I’m sure others might find it interesting, I am glad to have gotten rid of it.

Next, I’m eyeing my copy of The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon is an author I thought I’ll enjoy, and the novel is included in Time Magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. But it is steeped in a hatred of womanhood and is an absurdist’s dream-come-true. Maybe I’ll shed it the next chance I get.

What do you think?


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  1. @nitinkhanna This is the best posting I’ve seen here in months. How often do we see anyone advocating a high standard of behavior, positive spirituality? Hardly ever!

    When I was in college at Oberlin in 1967, the college sponsored a several day conference on drugs! Supposedly intended to be informative. They had every person they could find to come speak about psychedelic drugs: Leary & Alpert from Harvard, Krassner, Metzger, Ginsberg, all promoting taking drugs in a sophisticated academic way. Utterly irresponsible on the part of Oberlin, but I don’t recall any criticism of the school at all. But I’m sure none of the parents knew how their tuition money was being spent! This was maybe 6 mos before drugs exploded in the popular culture and kids started dying. I suppose they thought they were pushing the envelope of informing the students in an academic exploratory way. The blind leading the blind into dangerous territory. Shameful.

    Of course Leary gave the key performance with his turn on, tune in, drop out act. Alpert was still Alpert, not yet a guru. No one was there to suggest that maybe this was not such a good idea. There were no adults on the campus at the time.

  2. Do you only read novels that are on best seller or famous author lists? I know they’re famous, so I read one of their famous books and then I wonder why I wasted. your time? Why do people love reading that? This type of literature is why I hated English Literature in high school.

    I love the fact that most of the novels I have read were written by science-fiction and other authors that the majority of people have never heard off. Had Robert Heinlein, or Jules Verne, or Isaac Asimov been on my reading list in high school, I might have passed English Literature.

    • On the contrary, that was my dip into the famous author list. A big mistake, I’d say. I tried it because it gets exhausting finding something different and good. So thought maybe a few famous authors wouldn’t hurt. But after reading these, and then reading Cixin Liu, Ursula K Le Guin, and a book called Embers by Sandor Marai, I’ve come to realize that I don’t care who the author is as long as the book is good. I used to think this latter thing only. Just thought maybe I should go a little mainstream. Whether it was a misguided attempt, or it failed because I read terrible authors, the conclusion is that I’ve left that path.

  3. @Ron wow. I was right on the money then. This nonsensical approach to drugs and ‘nirvana’ is so misguided! Yet all we outsiders have seen are romanticized versions of that era. Frankly, every era of American culture.