Category Archives: books

Monotheism: An Alternative Bibliography

religions_venn

I’ve always been a bit betwixt, spiritually. If you read part 1 and part 2 of the 10-book bibliography of my spiritual evolution, you know a bit about this. On the one hand, I’ve long been interested in various/alternative spirituality and comparative religion. On the other, I’ve also been strongly drawn to the western monotheistic tradition, and had connections with it throughout my life. These days, I don’t sweat the contradiction between these two pulls much, but it took a lot of spiritual searching to get there. And of course, being a bookish type, a big part of that searching involved reading.

In our current cultural milieu, the two loudest voices on this subject are the “New Atheists”, who reject every religious belief that has ever existed as dangerous superstition that destroys everything, and the Christian Fundamentalists, who insist there is only one spiritual truth, and only one exactly literal permissible interpretation of it. If, like me, you aren’t quite ready to jettison the Western religious tradition entirely, but you also can’t subscribe to a traditional interpretation of it, I would recommend the following 10-book reading list as a starting point for exploring a third way of appreciating Monotheism.

 

historyA History of God (Karen Armstrong)– Because Christian Fundamentalism is such a strong voice in our current culture wars (as well as the boogeyman of Islamic Fundamentalism), it can be easy to equate Fundamentalism with religious belief itself, and to think that it has always been so. One of the very useful things I got from Karen Armstrong’s survey of 4,000 years of Jewish, Christian & Muslim thought about God is just how rich a variety of viewpoints there have been in all three religions, and what an outlier 20th/21st century Fundamentalism is. Traditional religion turns out to have never been all one thing, and God is an idea that continues to evolve as all three faiths grapple with it.

 

job Answer to Job (Carl Jung)– Jung starts by looking at the Book of Job, and the thundering non-answer God gives Job when questioned about suffering. He then presents the Gospels as God “reconsidering” his answer, with an outpouring of love and self-sacrifice to relive our suffering. However, this is too abrupt a shift from the sometimes judgmental God of the Old Testament, leaving an unintegrated remainder of the capacity for wrath. And thus we get the Book of Revelation… This fascinating examination of the Bible in the context of psychology and mythology opens up whole new ways to understand scripture.

 

G-CGod : A Biography, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Jack Miles)– In many ways, Miles two books follow up on this approach. But Miles instead approaches scripture from the vantage point of literary criticism, examining what kind of character God, as presented in the Bible, is. The first volume covers the troubled evolution of God’s character in the Old Testament, and the second presents the New Testament as a response to the crisis that God’s character comes to,  which is radically resolved through incarnation and sacrifice. Again, coming at things from a fresh direction can break open how the story can reach us today, and what it can mean.

 

rescuingRescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (John Shelby Spong)– A (now retired) Episcopalian Bishop, Spong made it his life’s work to consider what scripture can mean in the age of science. He points out that a literal understanding as modern Fundamentalism thinks of it is actually a very modern phenomenon, and would have made no sense, for example, to medieval Jewish Rabbis, or classic theologians like St. Augustine. The Bible, he contends, can and should be understood in its original cultural and historical setting, and considered in light of what its essential meaning is in our current setting.

 

 

stalkingStalking Elijah (Rodger Kamenetz)– In his earlier book, The Jew in the Lotus, Kamenetz described the journey from his Jewish upbringing to Buddhism. After it came out, the Dalai Lama challenged his to search for practices of mindfullness in his own spiritual tradition. His resulting talks with several contemporary Jewish mystics uncovers a lively and longstanding tradition of mystical contemplation in Judaism. It turns out that being a Jew and a Buddhist aren’t necessarily as different as one might think…

 

 

 

cosmicThe Coming of the Cosmic Christ (Matthew Fox)– Fox, like Spong, sought to bring new understanding to the church from within, but met with a little more resistance, ultimately resulting in him being expelled as a priest from the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. One of the key points of the schism was his rejection of the idea of “original sin”, instead focusing on the original blessing of creation, and how a church focused on this can atone for its own sins against women, the unempowered, other faiths, etc. and develop an ecologically-centric, globally-minded and gender-balanced idea of what Christ represents. As Fox says, “The power of native religions to regenerate Christianity and to reconnect the old religion with the prophetic Good News of the Gospels has yet to be tapped.”

 

gospelThe Gospel According to Jesus (Stephen Mitchell)– Starting in the 19th Century and accelerating into the 20th, there has been a lot of scholarship based on archaeology, literary study and the latest discoveries of ancient texts on who the historical Jesus was, and what his original teachings may have been vs. what is later accretion by the Church as it grew. Mitchell wrote this book in an attempt to make that scholarship more available to a lay-audience. He also puts Jesus’ teachings in the context of spiritual traditions from around the world. This book had a profound impact on me when I first read it, unlocking a vitality and compassion in the Gospel message that is all too easily obscured by dogma and history at this point.

 

jesusThe Jesus I Never Knew (Philip Yancey)– Yancey’s book actually does something very similar, but from a diametrically opposite direction. Yancey is a mainstream Evangelical author, but he takes the gospel message down to its fundamentals, and lets every challenging thing that Jesus asked of his followers stand in sharp relief. Again, as with Mitchell, this has a way of cutting through history and dogma, and re-revealing how radical the message of Jesus really was, and remains today.

 

 

 

leftThe Left Hand of God: a Biography of the Holy Spirit (Adolf Holl)– In the fine tradition of Fox, Holl is a Catholic writer and theologian who served as a priest and professor of Theology for almost 20 years until he was dismissed due to conflicts with church authorities. They may dismiss him, but I found his biography of the Holy Spirit to be very arresting. He looks at the third “person” of the traditional Christian Trinity through its affect on a variety of inspired figures throughout history, including Catholic saints, founders of alternate religions, U.S. Pentecostals and Malcom X. This approach leaves the Spirit as it should be, very much alive and active in the world.

 

Those are some of the best books on fresh approaches to western Monotheism that I’ve read. If you have any you’d like to recommend, let me know!

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What I’m Reading: March 2016

 

lucy reading peanuts

Now that the Presidential Campaign is on a brief but merciful lull, I can get back to my more usual blog fare: reading, writing, and writing about writing and reading. At any given time, I have several different volumes of several kinds going. Here’s what I’m currently up to:

stnSignal to Noise (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) Book clubs are good. Geeks are good. Speculative Fiction is good.  For all these reasons, and including the lovely people involved, the Geek Mountain State Book Club is one of my ongoing delights. If you know Geek books, you know that some of them can get quite lengthy, so I try and read ahead. So I’ve just started this, which we have up for discussion in May. It’s actually not a long book, but I try and front-load! Too new to say much about it yet, but it involves mix tapes and urban fantasy, set in  Mexico City in the 80s. On subject matter alone, there is approximately a 0% chance that I won’t love it. Speaking of zeroes…

 

NZNonzero (Robert Wright) At any given time, I try to rotate between something from fiction, nonfiction and spiritual (that tricky category that straddles both realms). I’m currently at the non-fiction stage in the rotation, and so am reading this, Robert Wright’s exploration of the “meta-story” of social evolution. It’s been on my list for a long time, ever since I saw it on a list of books former President Clinton was reading some time in the early 2000s. After I finished weeping thinking of “reading” in connection with the then-current occupant of the White House, I made a note to check it out. It’s been well worth it. So far, I’m in the section that reviews the “arrow” of social/technological/economic development running through history. The very hopeful thesis is that, despite the vagaries of history and temporary ups and downs, there’s an underlying trend toward larger scale, increasingly complex societies based on the “nonzero” game of cooperation. I’m really interested in getting to the part where Wright speculates about, based on where we’ve been, where we’re going next.

 

luckyLucky Fish (Aimee Nezhukumatathil) I also have some poetry in the hopper at any given time. On the “new school” side, I’m currently reading the latest volume by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Her work is a wonderment of connections between personal and global history, the natural world, the interior world, and popular culture. Illuminated throughout by wit and compassion. And she is, incidentally, the featured poet in the forthcoming annual print edition of Mud Season Review, a literary journal where I’m the co-editor of Poetry.  We’re thrilled to have her!

 

Robert BurnsPoems and Songs (Robert Burns) And kicking it “old school” on the poetry side, I have this collection by Robert Burns going. If 18th hunner years romantic bards writing in scots sassenach wi’ wit ‘n’ verve ur yer thing, ye micht wantae check this oot. Quite seriously, besides the delight of looking up new words in the glossary in back, the lyrical nature of his verse is second to none. And you don’t just have to take my word for it- Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and Bob Dylan are all pretty fond of him as well.

 

enigmaThe UFO Enigma (Peter Sturrock) Ever since I was a wee lad, I’ve liked my unexplained phenomenon, and none more so than UFOs. It’s a subject that’s been so thoroughly ridiculed at this point that it’s difficult to discuss seriously. Speaking of signal-to-noise, around 95% of UFO reports are clearly noise- low-quality reports, misidentifications, hoaxes, etc. But there remains a residue of around 5% “signal” that is genuinely baffling and highly unknown to contemporary science. This book is a presentation of the proceedings of a scientific panel brought together by Laurance Rockefeller in 1997 to examine some of the “best evidence” that investigators had to present. I’m looking forward to reading their conclusions, because the truth is still out there…

 

KoranHoly Qur’an  Were we just talking about truth? About 1.6 billion people world-wide consider this to be the most perfect version of a religion that has been continually revealed to humankind throughout history, starting with the Jews, and then the Christians, and culminating here. As a syncretic panentheist I don’t really do exclusive claims to truth. But I do respect spiritual traditions from around the world and throughout history, so I’m almost always reading somebody’s scripture.

 

Buddha If You meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (Sheldon Kopp)  Take that, scriptures! Sheldon Kopp uses the language of psychotherapy, mythology and numerous religious traditions to highlight what he sees as a universal human journey from looking for the answer from someone else to realizing that it is only found within. This is my “car book”, I read a page or two to provide myself with a moment of zen before heading in to the office.

 

 

JLA_Vol_6_TPBJLA Vol. 6 (Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen, David Baron) On the topic of religion and myths, comics writer Grant Morrison thinks superheroes are our contemporary legends. I usually have a comics collection on my Nook for night-time reading before bed, and I couldn’t be happier than with this one. Though I’ll always be a Marvel boy at heart, things don’t get any bigger or more legendary than the heaviest hitters from DC Comics, the Justice League.

 

So that’s what I’m currently reading! How about you?

A Brief Bibliography of my Spiritual Evolution: Part 2

sacred-texts

You may have tuned in recently for part one of my overview of ten books that were key to the development of my spirituality throughout my life. If not, go catch up!

Okay, ready? Last week’s installment covered five books that took me from childhood through my late 20s. We’ll pick up below with five more that take us from there to (roughly) now.

BBimageThe Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous– I first encountered this book at the age of 29, by which point addictive behaviors of various stripes had made my life completely unmanageable. Up until then, I had perused spirituality in an intellectual way. What I lacked was what this book provided, and I could no longer do without: a practical, step-by-step (all puns intended) guide to how to put spiritual principles in to practice in everyday living. Yes the language is a little outdated now (it first came out in 1935). But the common-sense and extremely low-dogma approach to spirituality is as relevant as ever. Over the years, I have heard Christian fundamentalists dismiss its concept of choosing a Higher Power of your own understanding as being too wishy-washy, and Atheist fundamentalists dismiss it as being Christian propaganda. Anything that can stay in a sensible middle of both extremes must be on to something!

televsionaryThe Televisionary Oracle– Some of you may be familiar with Rob Brezsny from his irreverent, fiercely intelligent, and radically freedom-insistent Free Will Astrology column. You may not realize that he’s also written a novel. Or is it a New Age self-help book? Bizarrely presented memoir? Whichever, when I came across this book in the wake of separating from my first wife in my early 30s, it was deeply welcome. It was like having a dear friend to help talk a newly-single, emotionally-raw me through the process of re-discovering who I was. A dear friend who was also crazy, and sexy, and able to pull together multiple threads of the metaphysical concepts I’d spent years reading about. This book also really helped me connect to the idea of the Divine Feminine. I’d heard it before, of course, but reading this book really got me feeling God as a She, which totally changed my connection to Her.

artistswayThe Artist’s Way– If the Big Book helped show me how to practically apply spiritual principles to my life, The Artists’ Way did something similar to the most important part of my life, my creativity. This was also after my divorce, as I was finally getting back to writing, after years away from it. Julia Cameron’s credo in this book is that, “God is an artist. So are we. And we can cooperate with each other. Our creative dreams and longings do come from a divine source, not from the human ego.” But this idea is then put into action through a twelve-week course of daily exercises that allow the reader to re-connect to their creativity, and connect their creativity to their spirituality, in a thoroughly non-denominational way that draws from multiple sources. I’ve been through it twice, and each time it’s turbo-charged my creative process, and led me in new directions. I haven’t worked through it in ten years at this point, so it may be time to do it again…

cosmicCosmic Trigger 1: The Final Secret of the Illuminati– Running in parallel to my lifelong interest in spirituality has been an equally lifelong interest in the paranormal and conspiracy theories. As a kid, I literally kept files of clippings and photocopies of articles on unexplained phenomenon- I recall UFOs, ghosts, ESP, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and several other topics each having their own file. I’m pretty sure Chris Carter owes me some kind of copyright infringement settlement. But what I’m actually here to talk about is how writer/philosopher/maverick Robert Anton Wilson spent his life tuned in to the intersection of conspiracy theories, the paranormal, mysticism, science and religion. And from that, he produced (among many other things) this delightful volume that asserts nothing, implies everything, and encourages the reader to keep an open mind. I’m basically the perfect target audience for this book, and upon reading it in my mid-30s, the paranoia that is the birthright of Gen-Xers like myself somehow turned to profound amusement, and I’ve never looked at things in quite the same way again.

hookedHooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume– This book is actually a collection of essays that addresses the unrest without (consumer culture, capitalist excess, environmental degradation) and links it to the unrest within (addictions, greed, spiritual dissatisfaction). It turns out that Buddhism has been keyed in to this essential human difficulty in experiencing “enough” the whole time, and the voices collected in this volume have a lot to say about possible ways forward through our modern dilemma. Reading this as I approached 40 really helped me see where my decades-long interest in Buddhism could directly speak to both my internal unrest and the unrest of the world whose future I increasingly fear for. In a dark age, it’s important to remember that there are deeper forces in the world, and there’s a chance that our karma may be in the process of working itself out.

And that’s the ten books that have most influenced my spiritual development (so far). I would love to hear some of yours!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief Bibliography of my Spiritual Evolution: Part 1

holy-books

For about as long as I can remember (and therefore probably longer) I have always been intensely interested in Religion and Spirituality. Having been raised in a completely areligious household- not anti-religious, not hostile in any way, more like the subject just didn’t exist in the world at all- it was left to me to sort out for myself what my spirituality was. Me being me, books played a key role in this process. Here’s the first part of a list of ten that were pivotal in the development of my spiritual beliefs throughout my life.

childrensbibleThe Children’s Bible– Given the aforementioned  areligious household, I can’t imagine who even gave this to me. It’s possible I asked for it myself! This was a tome of shortened versions of Old and New Testament passages written for a children’s reading level. besides being beautifully illustrated, it had an admirable willingness to not sanitize adult details, like Absalom’s donkey getting him hung from a tree. I later had an obsession with biblical prophecy, took a Bible correspondence course, was in Bible studies groups in various churches in teens and twenties, have read through the whole thing several times, sometimes taking notes the whole way through, and have perused more books on the history and meaning of Judaism and Christianity than you can shake a library at. But this book retains a special place in my heart as my first foray into the area.

 

zenfleshbonesZen Flesh, Zen Bones– This collection of Zen stories, anecdotes and Koans (short riddles meant to prompt moments of enlightenment) was one of my first introductions to Buddhism. I remember at the time (I can’t place it exactly, but it would have been late teens) feeling that Buddhist philosophy intuitively felt right, and fit with my experience of the world. I went on from there to more intensive study, being parts of mediation groups at various times, and checking out Daoism and Hinduism too. And I still feel instinctively drawn to and in-sync with Buddhism to this day!

 

 

what_religion_is_in_the_words_of_swami_vivekananda_idj245What Religion Is– After teaching English in Japan following college, my future ex-wife and I went back-packing around Asia for several months. This remains one of the grander adventures of my life. On the more mundane side, travel means a lot of long distance hauls on trains and buses. One of the things that really helped pass the time in India was the cheap paperbacks available from vendors at every train station. I had previously heard of Swami Vivekananda, one of the key figures in popularizing Eastern Religions in the West, so I eagerly picked up this book, an expanded version of his remarks to the Parliament of the World’s Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His central premise, that the world’s various religions are at heart one, and are different adaptations to bring the message to different people’s at different times, has been tremendously influential for me ever since. In subsequent study of the scriptures of Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, etc., I have found that, sure enough, once you delve underneath the framework of specific historical and cultural context, the central message of what life is, how to live it, and how to treat each other has an astonishing underlying unity.

 

gatjThe Gospel According to Jesus– I have heard it said that it’s very hard to understand a box from inside the box. Nowhere is this more true than with our cultural “boxes”. What Jesus taught is so sunk in to (and so inconsistently practiced by) Western culture that it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary his message actually was. And is. In this slim volume, Stephen Mitchell takes advantage of the best of recent historical scholarship and comparisons with spiritual traditions from around the world to re-present the teachings of Jesus. Having started with the Bible, and then diving into Eastern Religion, reading this in my mid-20s brought Jesus back to me and gave me a renewed love for him and his message.

 

krishnaThe Book of Life– In my late 20s, I was working in Hong Kong. It was a highly charged, and in many ways, very dark period of my life. I was, selfishly and ill-advisedly, living apart from my future ex-wife, working ridiculous hours at an international trading company, and spiraling down into various addictions. This collection of daily meditations from Krishnamurti provided me with glimmers of hope during this difficult period. Krishnamurti himself is a very interesting figure- in childhood he was identified by the heads of Theosophy as the coming “World Teacher” who would unveil their message to the world. In his 20s, he had a profound spiritual experience that eventually led him to repudiate Theosophy, and his identified role, and announced: “I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. … This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.” Of course, it’s not that easy to get out of being a messenger once you’ve been tapped, and he did go on to become a spiritual teacher of sorts, one whose compassionate and unflinching message of radical spiritual liberation helped get me through a very dark time.

 

 

What I’m reading: August edition

litcat

In 12ish years of attending writing workshops, writing conferences, and reading umpteen “so you want to write” articles, I’ve seen a lot of advice for writers slosh through. The three pieces of advice I most consistently see reflected for aspiring writers are:

  1. Keep a regular journal
  2. Get in to a feedback group or other community to support and review your writing
  3. Read

I’ll check in on the third now, with a list of what I’m currently reading (and why).

conspiracies Conspiracies and Secret Societies (Brad and Sherry Steiger) This is on my Nook. I like to have a paranormal type book on there at all times for lights-out bedtime reading. You get more interesting dreams that way. Since this is basically an encyclopedia, it’s custom-made for reading an entry or two a night.

Qur'anHoly Qur’an I like to be reading a sacred text at any given time, in order to stay tuned in to the transcendent wavelength. I’ve done this for years, and this is my second time through the Qur’an, this time in digital version.

meetIf You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (Sheldon B. Kopp) I find it useful to have a spiritualaic book for brief morning as well. These days, that means it’s in my car, for a quick few minutes of centering before heading in to work. This was recommended by a friend in recovery, and I’m really appreciating it!

JLA 5JLA: Volume 5 (Mark Waid, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary) At any given time, I’m also reading a graphic novel of some sort. There are all kinds of complex very adult graphic novels one could be reading. Not for me- I want my superheroes. Comic book geek for life, yo! And the heroes don’t get any bigger than the Justice League.

MuahmmadMuhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (Karen Armstrong) This is my “main” book. I try to rotate between fiction, non-fiction and spiritual. We’re on to the spiritual rung in the cycle now, and I’ve read and admired several things by Karen Armstrong, so I was eager to see what her brief biography of the man behind the origin of Islam would be like.

GraceThe Grace of Kings (Ken Liu) Shout out to the Geek Mountain State Book Club! This is our next next book, but it’s so long I wanted to get a jump on it. We’d read Ken Liu’s translation of a Chinese sci-fi novel a few months back, so I was intrigued to see some of his original work. This is his fantasy take on an alternate-world version of China’s Warring States period, and so far it is excellent!

lostThe Lost Symbol (Dan Brown) This is what you might call my “bathroom book”. Strictly speaking, it can also be read for a few minutes in bed before turning out the light, at the beach, on train rides, etc. So, no hurry to get through it. But, being Dan Brown, it is a rapid page-turner whenever I do pick it up.

How about you? What’s on your current reading list?

Year of Kerouac: The Subterraneans



Here we are for the latest installment of The Year of Kerouac. Which is likely now the Year-and-a-half-of-Kerouac since it’s already November. Let’s ignore twisted temporal tiddlywinks for the moment, though, and focus back on the mission: I have set myself the project of re-reading (and in many cases, reading for the first time) the works of Jack Kerouac in one(ish) year(s). As a quick refresher on the ground rules, I’m reading them not in the order of when they were written (the years on the left below) but rather in order of the subject matter most of them cover, Kerouac’s own life (the years to the right below). For your further edification, I’ve highlighted what I’ve read thus far, and put in links to my earlier reviews. 

Visions of Gerard             1956       1922–1926

Doctor Sax          1952       1930–1936
Maggie Cassidy 1953       1938–1939
 Vanity of Duluoz               1968       1935–1946
Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings    1936–1943           Various
The Town and the City   1946–1949           1935–1946
On The Road      1948–1956           1946–1950
Visions of Cody 1951–1952           1946–1952
The Subterraneans         1953       1953
·         Mexico City Blues (1955; published 1959)
Tristessa              1955–1956           1955–1956
The Dharma Bums           1957       1955–1956
·         The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1956; published 1960) 
Desolation Angels            1956–1957 
Book of Dreams   1960    1952-1960
Lonesome Traveler, short story collection (1960)
Big Sur (novel)   1961       1960
Satori in Paris     1965       1965
·         Pic, novella (1951 & 1969; published 1971)

  


Which brings us to The Subterraneans. I’d tried and failed to read this around the age of 19 or so. Which I can understand now, looking back, as it’s definitely more on the experimental prose side of his works. Not Doctor Sax or Visions of Cody experimental, but certainly given to his ongoing concern for capturing the flow of thought in motion. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative in a way, chronicling the beginning, middle and end of a love affair. Except that the end informs the beginning throughout, and sometimes the middle circles back on itself to reveal another layer of the same incident. So, it might have been a little advanced for literary larval me. More than that, I don’t think I had the ability at the time to understand all the forces at play in Kerouac’s life as portrayed here- literary disappointment, romantic disappointment  and an unsuccessful struggle with accelerating alcoholism and his conflicted views on women and relationships. As in, they are divine creatures who can transform and save your life, but you also have to not get hung up on them and know when to ignore them. It’s heartbreaking to see it in motion, especially heartbreaking since you can feel the earnestness of his love interest Mardou Fox. I’ve seen others write about how she’s portrayed as crazy, but I find her to be a damn sight more sensible and stable than he is throughout. It’s also chilling, knowing his own end, to see him already, in 1953, suffering alcoholic withdrawal nightmares in the morning. One of the other things I found interesting about the book, knowing how autobiographical most of his writing is, was seeing the things he choose to fictionalize. The personages, his relationship with them, etc. is all virtually verbatim. But the story is set in San Francisco, instead of the New York where it actually happened, and he even has himself fictionally having grown up in South San Francisco instead of in Lowell, Massachusetts. Did this give him the distance he needed to get the story out? 


We will leave ourselves pondering that, and see how much further in the list I can get before the end of the year! 

Year of Kerouac: The Town and the City, On The Road, Visions of Cody



I’m not going to lie to you. The Year of Kerouac may well become the Year-and-a-half-of-Kerouac. Especially given that this is my first post since May, which I can at least partially blame on the whole “I just moved to Vermont” thing. Which I should probably also write about some time! But in the mean time, I have been continuing my year-long project of re-reading (and in many cases, reading for the first time) the works of Jack Kerouac. As a quick refresher on the ground rules, I’m reading them not in the order of when they were written (the years on the left below) but rather in order of the subject matter most of them cover, Kerouac’s own life (the years to the right below). For your further edification, I’ve highlighted what I’ve read thus far, and put in links to my earlier reviews. 

Visions of Gerard             1956       1922–1926

Doctor Sax          1952       1930–1936
Maggie Cassidy 1953       1938–1939
 Vanity of Duluoz               1968       1935–1946
Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings    1936–1943           Various
The Town and the City   1946–1949           1935–1946
On The Road      1948–1956           1946–1950
Visions of Cody 1951–1952           1946–1952
The Subterraneans         1953       1953
·         Mexico City Blues (1955; published 1959)
Tristessa              1955–1956           1955–1956
The Dharma Bums           1957       1955–1956
·         The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1956; published 1960) 
Desolation Angels            1956–1957 
Book of Dreams   1960    1952-1960
Lonesome Traveler, short story collection (1960)
Big Sur (novel)   1961       1960
Satori in Paris     1965       1965
·         Pic, novella (1951 & 1969; published 1971)

I’ve sort of been avoiding The Town and the City throughout my whole Kerouac-inspired literary life, knowing that it was his most conventional novel. It is indeed conventional in language and structure, and feels very like “proper” 40ish-50ish American Literature. I.e., a little formal and stuffy, but with some beautiful passages along the way, places where you can almost feel his later prose style being born. And despite the formalism, I found it very engaging. It is one of his most thoroughly fictionalized works in a sense, presenting the sprawling story of the brothers and sisters in a Franco-American family from the fictional Galloway, Massachusetts. Of course, Galloway is a lot like his actual home-town of Lowell, and the parents are a lot like his real parents. And, having read the novels that covered his actual early years, and his other early writings previous to this, I was most struck by how non-fictional much of what’s presented is. It’s as if Kerouac has spread his own character out across the various fictional Martin brothers, and given each of them pieces of his actual biography. It made me aware of how much contradiction there was within the man himself- dreamy mystic, severe intellectual, family-bound boy, restless wanderer- here they all get to be actual separate characters. I also noticed that only here in all his writings, safely behind the veil of fiction, does he describe his father’s death, and tensions between father and son. Once spotted, you can see it hanging around in the background throughout On The Road and Visions of Cody. I also found it fascinating how he has the oldest brother, Joe, end up with the life he always thought he should have lived, settled with wife and child near ancestral home, but ends the novel with the main protagonist, Peter, literally getting on the road, about to hitch across the country. Cue the segue…  

It’s a popular theory in arm chair Kerouacanalysis that he became so embittered by the gap between this first success in 1950 and finally getting On The Road published in 1957 that he never really recovered despite later success. It certainly is true, as you can verify by looking at the dates above of when things were written, that his productivity dropped off markedly after 1957, and the works that were produced after that were darker in tone. The book itself, of course, was the first flowering of the breakthrough of his prose style (and, for added effect, obliquely chronicles at several points his finishing the manuscript of The Town and the City, and in its original form even began by referencing the death of his father that the earlier book chronicles towards its end). This is my third time reading it, and one of the things I observe is how what I saw in it each time depended very much on where I was in life. At 19-20 I was primarily keyed in to the adventure of the drugs, the sex, the travel, seeing it as a road map (all puns intended) for what I wanted to find in life. Much mayhem ensued from this line of thinking. Reading it again in my early 30s, as I was really seriously diving in to writing myself, I paid most attention to the prose, both in appreciation and in evaluation of the “how did he do that?” nuts and bolts aspects of the writing. Now, reading it at 42, besides noticing how I keep getting 10 years older every 10 years or so, what really stood out for me was the man behind the prose and the wandering. I have absorbed a lot of Kerouac and other Beat biographies over the years, and recently loaded up on his earlier writings, which definitely informs my sense of it. But, more than that, I myself have absorbed enough life now to really feel the internal contradictions, the restlessness, and the weariness and disappointment of the man behind the story. Not to mention that recovery has given me a whole other perspective on Kerouac as the alcoholic who still suffers. If I read it again in another 10 years or so, I’ll be older than he ever lived to be. I wonder what I’ll see in it then?            

Kerouac himself described Visions of Cody as a companion to On The Road, in which he covered “vertically” the heights and depths of the relationship with Neal Cassady which he had portrayed in a horizontal, chronological fashion in the earlier book. This is indeed the next batch of material he wrote after On The Road, although it was only published after his death. Even before publication, though, underground copies of it circulated, and had a profound effect on writers in the 60s. It’s easy to see why, as this is some of Kerouac’s writing at its most experimental. I actually found it to be a little thick reading at several points, and kept thinking of the dense and opaque prose of Proust and Joyce. Kerouac himself references them at several points, and I think was deliberately invoking this style of the plumbing of consciousness and all its contents, focused, sometimes very tangentially, through meditations on Cody Pomeray, aka Dean Moriarty from On The Road, aka Neal Cassady. As such, there are parts that are tedious, parts that invoke a cringe (especially where the inner monologue of Kerouac the misogynist “lover” of women is on full display), and parts that glow with nearly prophetic insight and absolutely amazing prose. And that in itself is the point- he’s presenting all the truth of his mental life, without fear or favor. The literary feat, in a way, is as important as the content, the feat itself is its own content. An additional bonus is a 30-page end-note section in which Allen Ginsberg documents his reactions upon reading the manuscript for the first time in the early 70s in the wake of the loss of these two men that he loved.  

So now you’re caught up on my literary journey of this year, and I’m caught up. Further installments to follow…