Friday, September 07, 2007
The Endless Scroll: Kerouac in the Digital Age
It is ironic to contemplate: Jack Kerouac the man was too fragile to withstand the glare of fame for more than a few years, whereas the legend has survived a half-century of relentless media revolution. The anniversary publication of the fabled "scroll" edition of his paradigm-shifting novel On the Road has prompted me to reflect on the many assumptions about writing and publishing that have changed in the half-century since the debut of the original. We are all Jack's children, I think, in profound and superficial ways.
Kerouac's discovery, the freedom to move, to finally get down that novel in a seamless thought/hand/key/paper gesture without the distraction of having to swap in each fresh sheet is something we all now take for granted, especially bloggers. What is a blog, or any Word document, really, but a scroll? The second-guessing and self-censorship he struggled against will always be with us, but technology is now more of a balm than an irritant. Where Jack improvised a new seamless format with tape and scissors we now fashion our own contours with the click of a few options and virtual buttons— we post hourly, daily, weekly or randomly, we tag and categorize; we revise instantly as we write, or we revise stealthily right on the "published" page in broad daylight and hope no one notices.
Even the stigma of being "unpublished" has lost some sting. Nowadays many a fool with nothing to say can reach thousands in minutes from his or her laptop. Kerouac crisscrossed the nation for most of the 1950s with a rucksack full of unpublished, unseen, unread, brilliant manuscripts, adding to them as he went — scratching into notepads his lonely dispatches from hill, dale and half-empty coffee shop long before WiFi was even imaginable. He carried his life on his back like a snail carries its shell, finally letting down his load in 1957 after Viking published the heavily-edited and forcibly-punctuated On the Road. Had he survived until 2007 he might very well have disowned most of us, his speed-typing, Warbucks-coffee-swilling progenitors, much as he disowned and disavowed the media-empowered beatniks and hippies of his waning days. Certain particulars of the Kerouac (or "Duluoz") legend— i.e. breaking the shackles of conventional syntax and conventional writing tools — have become technically irrelevant, though powerfully mythic. The core of the legend, his vision and sheer empathy as a writer, are still rare and valuable qualities, not widely parsed out amongst us digital-era coffee bar typists.
But I dare say poor Jack would have swapped that heavy rucksack-full of manuscripts for a nice 1GB thumb drive in a heartbeat. He may have been a Holy Goof, but he was no fool.