On The RoadOn The Road is a book like no other. Jack Kerouac's most famous piece of work – originally published 50 years ago in September 1957 – means many things to many people. Tom Peters, owner of the Beat Book Shop in Boulder, Colorado, readily admits the book helped change his life.

"I had read the book about five times by the time I was 22," he said. "I still think the best way to read it is in one sitting from beginning to end."

Peters is a disciple of books but particularly Kerouac and other key figures from the Beat Generation. The son of an English teacher who continually brought books home, Tom graduated from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with a degree in poetry in 1987 after being taught by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and other figures instrumental in Beat literature.

"I've been a bookseller for 20 years and opened this bookstore in March 1990 – it's open seven days a week. Before that I had worked in a used bookstore," he said. "I've always read and had been collecting books for many years before opening the bookstore. I had a large number of signed books signed by people like Ginsberg."

Peters & Ginsberg in 1990
Peters (right) with Ginsberg in 1990

If you happen to be one of the few people in the world to have not read On The Road, it's an autobiographical tale of Keroauc's road trips around America with his friends. A stream of consciousness, the book celebrates partying, music, picking up girls, drugs and people looking for kicks after rejecting the acceptable side of post-World War II American life – the white picket fence, mortgages, new refrigerators and 9-to-5 jobs.

The key characters in the book are Dean Moriarty, which is a pseudonym for Neal Cassady – one of the author's comrades on his real-life travels, and narrator Sal Paradise, which is Kerouac himself.

"It's a great, great book," said Peters. "It's a map of someone's heart. People find themselves in the characters. Conservatives see into a different culture. Remember lifestyles in America used to be very similar, far more so than now. The book follows Kerouac's life and in the 1960s people tried to emulate it. He created the ‘Rucksack Revolution' of the 1960s when thousands of people hit the road. William S Burroughs said Kerouac opened a million coffee shops and sold a million pairs of Levis. He influenced so many people."

With a new unedited version of On The Road being published to celebrate the anniversary, the book is expected to find yet another generation of fans.

Big Sur

According to Peters, the popularity of Kerouac has waxed and waned over the years with a number of his books, such as Big Sur, even falling out of print. He points to the 1990s as a decade that saw renewed interest in the author's work and the Beat Generation figures.

"There was a monster publicity storm in the 1990s," he said. "Johnny Depp mentioned him over and over again. Kurt Cobain recorded an album with William S Burroughs. To me, it just seemed so natural because I'd always thought On The Road was great. I simply thought ‘How could you have failed to notice it before?'"

According to Peters, Kerouac left an estate of just $1000 when he died in 1969 but today his estate is worth $15 million. The roll, the long single piece of paper that the author used to type out the book in a single three-week session, was bought by Robert Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, for $2.4 million in 2001.

All first editions of Kerouac's books are collectible but Peters tells of a signing that Kerouac conducted in Denver on 2 March 1950 where an unknown quantity of review copies of The Town And The City, Kerouac's first book, were signed. "I don't think any of these books have been offered for sale but if they were they'd be worth a fortune," said Peters.

The Town and the City

Prices for first editions of On The Road stretch into the $10,000 region. The Beat Book Shop itself is offering a first edition of The Town And The City for $25,000.

It's easy to accuse On The Road of being dated with its old fashioned dialogue and situations from more than half a century ago, but the bookstore owner is quick to defend the book which still sells 100,000 copies per year.

"I think it was far ahead of its time," he said. "People are just catching up now. It reflects the period it was written in. For instance, he loved black culture and used politically correct words that have changed over time. Kerouac wrote about negroes but in the 1960s people were taught to say blacks. In the 1970s, people started to say African Americans. It's easy to find flaws but surely people get a thrill from the writing style – some of it is unlike anything else that had been written before. His style was spontaneous but lots of thought went into his writing – he thought for a long time before writing it down."

The owner of the Beat Book Shop points out Kerouac - who attended and dropped out of Columbia University where he met Cassady and Ginsberg - lost many friends and peers in World War II and also his elder brother, Gerard, who died from rhuematic fever at the age of nine. These events had a huge impact on Kerouac's formative years as a child and in the period immediately after World War II.

Peters describes members of Kerouac's On The Road generation – the drifters, the drinkers, the womanizers, the musicians, the poets – as people who "were ‘beat', people who had lost the game. They didn't get married or get a mortgage. They realized the whole game (of standard American life) was a big joke. They took off looking for their dreams – not cars, houses or mortgages."

Fans of On The Road might want to visit Boulder on September 10 when the Beat Book Shop is holding a 12-hour non-stop public reading of the book at the Laughing Goat coffee shop next door to Tom’s store. It starts at 12 noon with volunteers taking turns to read this history-making book. Key figures from Boulder will be appearing from 8pm until midnight.


Read an extract from a 1968 Paris Review interview with Kerouac.

Jack Kerouac Quiz