Jack Kerouac may well have only taken three weeks to write his counterculture bible On The Road on one continuous roll of teletype paper, but the groundwork for that great rush of literary unspooling had been laid well in advance.
Back in 1940, as an 18-year-old whippersnapper in the military, a young Kerouac penned himself a notebook page of ‘Required Reading for J.K’. Beyond the charm of the third person, the title is a very interesting glimpse into the literary uptake of the juvenile upstart. It is clear from his choices, even at such a young age, that his eclectic mix of literature, spiritualism and history was already in place.
The selections are challenging when it comes to prose and they indicate that Kerouac was a man well beyond his boyish years and yet the ‘For K.C.’ in the title would suggest a youthful heart. It is this wistful wisdom and inherent verve for life that he would hone into the seminal masterpiece On The Road which proved to be perhaps the most influential work of literature of the century.
First on his list is a trio of spiritual texts including Indian and Chinese scriptures as well as the trusty old Bible. The influence of these texts on Kerouac never abated and permeate his work, particularly in The Dharma Bums.
Alongside the ancient spiritual texts is equally ancient works of history and myth. Homer was a Greek who penned the epics, Odyssey and Iliad, books so influential that the still preside over storytelling and culture to this day. As does the impact of the Romans which Edward Gibbon, another presence on his list, documented in his mammoth tomes on history with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Plutarch is another Greek, who lived in the second century AD and documented biographies for the seminal figures of the day.
His love of classics also stretches to Shakespeare, so much so that he popped ‘again’ in brackets next to his name. As though he had constructed it in order of history, he followed up Shakespeare with the literary works of early 20th Century American prose master Thomas Wolfe.
Next up is a list of specific novels from postmodernist James Joyce to the sci-fi luminary H.G. Wells and famously misunderstood Frenchman Marcel Proust, with the novels; Finnegan’s Wake, The Outline of History, Remembrance Of Things Past, respectively. Topping off the list with the generalised works of Joseph Conrad (the man behind Heart of Darkness etc.) and Dante (the historical novelist behind Inferno).
It is the reading list of a soon-to-be literary master that doubles up as both a list of challenging recommendations and a fascinating glimpse at the formative texts for the man who would swallow them up and spit them back out his own way. In the process, he would change the literary world.
See the full list, below.
Jack Kerouac’s essential reading list:
- Indian Scripture
- Chinese [Scriptures]
- Old and New Testament
- Gibbon and Plutarch
- Homer (again)
- Shakespeare (again)
- Wolfe (always)
- Finnegan’s Wake
- Outline of History (again)
- Thoreau and Emerson ([again])
- Joseph Conrad
- Proust’s “Remembrance”
- Dante (again)