On The Road with ‘On The Road’

In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Beci Moss

A book is a traveller’s best friend. Whether you’re on a car journey to West Wales for a beach holiday or a flight from Mumbai to Colombo, a book is a constant companion. It would be wrong not to have one. In fact I’d go as far to say that a book is nearly as important to a traveller as a towel but I’m not sure Douglas Adams would agree.

Both items accompanied me when I succumbed to the “gap yah” stereotype and jetted off to Thailand. In between trips to find the nearest 7/11 I thumbed through many battered and well-loved books. There was never a shortage. Every hostel and dirt cheap hotel had a treasure trove of classics and page turners, ranging from Charles Dickens to E. L. James. It became a ritual amongst our group to make rooting through the bookshelf the first priority once the bags were dropped.

Part of the joy of reading whilst travelling is that it can inform your knowledge of the country. The right book in the right place can really help you to immerse yourself in a foreign culture. Conversely a book can also help you to escape it. Homesickness is a miserable affliction and when it strikes not even the most radiant beaches of Vietnam seem able to rival your local overpriced pub. At such times I often found solace in classic English authors; Thomas Hardy and his lovingly described Wessex for one. Yet the best books I read, the ones that I remember reading vividly, were the ones that kindled in me a sense of adventure. Books that gave me the energy and the desire to explore and discover. Books, in short, that inspired me to travel.

As we wound our way through jungles and over mountains I read about Bilbo discovering Middle Earth and learning new things. He may not have had a Lonely Planet guide but the tale of his journey and his adventure struck a chord with mine. Tolkien’s classic tale made me excited to create my own adventure. Whilst I’m fully ready to admit that my S.T.A. planned itinerary might not have been quite as perilous as Bilbo’s quest to the Lonely Mountain it still managed to instil in me a relish for adventure and travel.

Yet despite my love for ‘the Hobbit’ there was another book that truly inspired me during my time abroad. I read Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ in India, mostly on trains travelling from the East to the West of the country. From the moment I picked it up I was transfixed. The raucous, unapologetic tale of Sal Paradise’s search for meaning across America captivated me. It’s a credit to Kerouac’s work that it translates across time and location. Although his novel is concerned with the beat generation of 1950s America, its message applies to anyone who travels. Instead of searching for spirituality in a dilapidated American auto it was on Indian sleeper trains. Instead of drinking bourbon we drank Kingfisher beer and instead of benzedrine there were deadly bhang lassis. When I turned the last page I was left dazed and a little crestfallen that my time with the beat generation had ended.

Fundamentally ‘On The Road’ showcases the mission of those beatniks Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The rejection of the humdrum consumerist lifestyle in favour of a hunt for ones self and the meaning of life. Isn’t that essentially why we travel? Yes it is the clichéd image of the young privileged student taking a year out to discover themselves and yes as soon as we return home we’ll go straight back to our humdrum consumerist lifestyles but who cares? The triumph of Kerouac’s achievement lies in his ability to inspire us to search for meaning in our lives and to relish every moment of our journey. He inspires us to hit the road.

Read it before you catch your first flight. Read it after you’ve been home for a month. Read it when you’re stranded in a dirty Malaysian hostel having missed your intercontinental flight to Melbourne and your entire trip seems ruined. But most importantly; read it on the road.

Ieuan Callaghan

Ieuan Callaghan is a first year student at the University of Birmingham. He recently had the ultimate gap yah experience when he spent half a year travelling across the globe. He is an enthusiastic TGI Fridays employee, and in his spare time he’s part of improv troupe, Watch This Improv who will be appearing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. 

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(Image sourced from: www.blackwells.co.uk)