Ithaca Blog

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Kerouac and Ginsberg: Voices Beyond Time

There's a lot been made in the media recently of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." 2007 also marks the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that the poem "Howl", by Kerouac's friend Allen Ginsberg, had "redeeming social importance" and thus was not obscene.

In his 1957 opinion, San Francisco Municipal Judge Clayton W. Horn wrote, "Would there be any freedom of the press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?"

Of all the changes in socety and literature since the publication of these two landmark books, maybe the most significant is the shifting importance of the book, itself.

It's hard to imagine a book with adult literary aspirations changing the world today, or even much catching its notice.

Today we're busy. We're busy in general, and we're busy with computers.

This week a third of a million people (so far) logged on to the YouTube video by Saturday Night Live about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a gay man. It's funny, it's probably not important, and no one will remember it 5 years from now, forget 50.

A book, on the other hand, can be important.

A book can conquer time. It demands your time as you read it. It conquers time in its place on a bookshelf, unchangeable. You come back to a good book repeatedly over time.

A book can be important because it is a work of art. It's not a subscription service. You only buy it once. It doesn't try to sell you anything else. It doesn't have sponsors or links.

A book can be important because it can be subversive. You get it anonymously. It's cheap. It's portable. It's durable.

A book can be important because it requires something of you.

Kerouac and Ginsberg require a lot of us as readers, and as human beings. They reward the effort conscientiously - and immeasurably, though for the moment the world is measuring the achievement in years. After 50 years, Kerouac and Ginsberg still have an audience, thus voices beyond time.

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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