Great Books: “On the Road”, by Jack Kerouac — Life as Movement, the Urgency of Self-Exploration, and the Craving for Experience

Is there anyone even alive any more?!?!

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac is the answer to the anaesthesia that seems to have afflicted modern society.

It’s a book about wakefulness, about opening yourself up to uncertainty, and about making your own “dent in the universe”, so to speak. Even when so many people around us don’t seem to be interested in doing any of that at all.

It often seems to me as if there are more people around than ever before, yet fewer who are really and truly alive than there have ever been.

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You can’t go more than a few feet in some cities without bumping into someone who is rushing off to something or other.

All well and good, people should have lives, but nobody knows anyone any more!

Who are all these people and why don’t they talk to each other?

When you observe that most people seem to be selfishly engaged in their own meaningless parade towards death, you start to get the sense that you cannot go on like this any more.

“On the Road” is a passionate rejection of this state of affairs, and when you read it, you get a sense of the truth of the statement that “the road is life”.

Can you really stop anywhere and remain unchanged?

Can you remain fixed at a point in time and use that as your frame of reference to make sense of things?

As Soren Kierkegaard has observed elsewhere, life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forward.

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Soren Kierkegaard, proto-existentialist philosopher during the 19th century.

“On the Road” is about living forward, it’s about the desperate search for one’s own life, and just as much, it’s a powerful call to wakefulness that can only be experienced directly, never told or understood by another.

Sal Paradise has nowhere to go but everywhere.

He and I want to see everything, experience it all, take everything in, ask fifteen questions for every one answer that we receive in return, and as he says:

“All I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

“I hope you get to where you’re going and be happy when you do”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

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Jack Kerouac, author of “On the Road”

Do you ever wonder what everyone else is doing tonight?

Do you ever wonder what other people are all so worried about?

What they’re moving towards? What they’re grateful for?

What they think of the idea of their own inevitable deaths?

What they believe to be the worthiest pursuit of an autonomous human being?

“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

Why do we need to conform to the demands of an insane society?

Why do we need to educate our children to continue the pattern of acquisitiveness and strife that defines our culture today?

So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?

Erich Fromm wrote that it’s not a sane act to try to adapt ourselves to an insane society. If the culture doesn’t work, then don’t buy it. When an entire society denies its own freedom and shrinks from life itself, we have to realize that there is a different way.

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Erich Fromm, author of “The Sane Society”, and many other brilliant works.

Mindless conformity is not for us, and we don’t have to live the lives that are expected of us.

We’re all of us never in life again, says Sal, and this theme is repeated over and over throughout the book. As Dean says, “I just go along. I dig life.”

Gentle Warning: You probably don’t want to emulate Dean Moriarty exactly. He ended up with 1 wife, 2 ex-wives, and 4 children scattered all over the country, and it’s never clear that he has an overarching plan for what he wants his life to be.

But you can wander with intention. Not all who wander are lost.

Dean is passionately alive, but he’s reckless. He’s more of a Homer Simpson character than someone you can hold up as a good example.

But, that being said, Homer Simpson is actually one of my role models for that very reason. He doesn’t lead an average life. He’s been places and seen things (I know he’s a cartoon character!!) that most of us will never see and visit.

But doors open for him because he’s moving down the hallway of life.

Scene from “The Simpsons”, a very philosophical show if there ever was one.

He isn’t afraid. Neither is Dean Moriarty, and for that we can respect him, even if we can’t go along with his choices.

“He could hardly get a word out, he was so excited with life”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

Remaining trapped within a stifling existence is a “fate worse than death”, as it were. But “living each day as if it were your last” actually turns out to be pretty awful advice too.

I once heard a comedian say that he tried that advice. After two weeks, he was 30 pounds overweight, lost his job, and his family wouldn’t speak to him!

But I think why someone is tempted to either extreme is out of fear. Recklessness is a struggle against fear, and shrinking from life is a reaction against fear as well.

Fear is almost completely banished from “On the Road”. We are all only in life once, but death can’t dominate your thoughts during the short time you’re alive.

The distinction between prudence and fear is important here.

An intelligent plan for getting where you want to go is absolutely essential. And yet, the best-laid plans can change in an instant, and fear holds many of us back from even acting on those plans in the first place.

After all:

“Nothing frightens people more than getting what they want”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

It’s comfortable to stay at home, to stay in the secure job, to stay with the friends you’ve always had, to date the same kind of toxic people.

It’s a whole lot safer than taking a chance and taking a real shot at something big and important.

And yet:

“But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

Our modern society is not alone in holding out for something that we think is going to be better, or remaining trapped in self-limiting patterns of behavior.

When the guys have hitch-hiked all over America, front and back, up and down, east and west, they head to Mexico. They see native Mexicans leaving their traditions behind and holding out for something that they believe modern society can offer them.

We haven’t found it, or at least most of us haven’t, yet these new initiates into our ways of consumption and greed think that they might have a chance.

Again, they’re just taking the wrong kinds of risk.

“They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our hands in the same, same way.”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

Calling ourselves “First World” is like saying that we have reached some sort of Utopian ideal. You can see all around you that this is patently false.

“On the Road” proves that you can travel great distances, but everything concerning life and death is already transacting within your own body and mind.

It’s all within, but we can benefit from a healthy dose of the without.

It’s about balance; a crazy, exhilarating balance, that calls all of our previously held beliefs into serious question.

Nobody has it all figured out, nobody knows where anyone else is going, and the person we know least well of all is ourselves.

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

— Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise, “On the Road”

There’s nowhere to go but everywhere, and happiness is wherever you find it.

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The world is much larger than our ideas about it, and small thinking will only result in even smaller lives.

I think we all want to be big. We want to know that we’re on the right track, that our efforts mean something, and that there isn’t something better that we’re all missing.

But “over there” is just another “here”, and at the end of it all, you just need to trust yourself completely.

Trust yourself to find your own way, and break free of anyone else’s ideas about what your life should become. Trust yourself that even if everything breaks down completely, you will not have run away from life.

Trust yourself to always move forward.

I hope that you get where you’re going, and be happy when you do.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov


Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, nightclub bouncer, and dedicated reader. He writes about books, self-discipline, and human rights at, and here you can get his free ebook on how to radically improve your own levels of self-discipline. Between workouts, Matt is trying to read 1,000 books before he turns 30, and start a non-profit that allows volunteers to earn money just by tracking the hours they already spend volunteering. He would be straight-up honored if you would support the life-saving work of Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. That’s him! In the red!

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Originally published at on December 12, 2017.

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Top Writer in Books and Reading. Physique Competitor. Nonprofit Leader. Best Books:

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