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.