THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

24 October 2012

Typing - and Retyping On the Road

 In Matt’s last blog Film and On the Road, he referenced Truman Capote’s quote (often misquoted),'That's not writing. That's typewriting.'  At the time, a dim memory surfaced in my foggy brain, only to disappear again almost immediately. But it reappeared at the weekend, when a friend and I were browsing in the wonderful bookshop at the Whitechapel Gallery. My friend suddenly waved in front of me a copy of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing: managing language in the digital age. And then I remembered – Goldsmith includes a piece in the book entitled ‘Retyping On the Road.’ He talks of meeting some students who had been given assignments to write a piece in the style of their favourite author. One had chosen Kerouac and complained at how meaningless the exercise had seemed. Goldsmith thought she would have been better off going on her own road trip, - but then came to a another conclusion. He recalled often seeing art students engaged in copying old masters – and wondered if such ‘copying’ could be applied to literature, quoting from Walter Benjamin’s Reflections ‘the power of the text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.’ Perhaps the student could retype some (or even better, all) of On the Road, and she might thereby succeed in getting ‘inside the text.'

The British artist Simon Morris came across Goldsmith’s suggestion and decided to carry it out. Using the scroll edition of On the Road, he began to retype one page a day from the book on his blog Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head. He began on May 31, 2008 with that first sentence ‘I first met Neal not long after my father died,’ (of course, I immediately wondered why he had omitted the second met – it should be 'I first met met Neal'), and continued to the end of the page (ending in mid sentence), then continued the next day with the next page and so on. Every day he would spend c.20 minutes typing a page, finally completing his task in March 2009. Morris says that he would proofread each page, checking for mistakes (so how did he miss that met met?). Having never read the book before, he describes it as ‘the most thrilling read/ride of my life,’ and talks of the insights he gained into Kerouac’s writing. Goldsmith picks up on the fact that Morris found himself accidentally adding his own words – as Kerouac’s ‘shorthand’ allows the reader to complete sentences in their heads. Morris would then delete his own additions in the checking process, but acknowledges that he might have missed some. Goldsmith suggests that Morris’s appropriation of the text ‘need not be a mere passing along of information,’ but something more creative which could lead to ‘producing different versions and additions – remixes even- of an existing text.’  Appropriation and re-purposing are of course recurring themes in Goldsmith’s writing – often controversial but always challenging and thought-provoking (see for example, his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

The web was the perfect conduit for Morris’s performative project – predigital it would have been an altogether different proposition. So the rather surprising culmination to the project was the publication – in print – of Morris’s Getting Inside of Jack Kerouac’s Head. The book mimics almost exactly the design and typography of the Penguin edition of On the Road (google it), and includes Morris's blog, but commences with the last blog and works backwards. As Goldsmith comments, ‘it was jarring to see a blog-driven project reborn as print.’ For me, it's a step too far - the blog I get, but not the book.

So has the project been a success for Morris? ‘One would hope for some truly profound response but really there is none. I don’t feel anything at all. A bit like Jack Kerouac’s own journey on the road and into himself in search of something he never really finds…… all I can really say with any certainty is I’ve never spent such a long time with a book or thought about any book as much.'

For those of you wishing to engage with Kerouac's own typing, the On the Road scroll is on display at the Library until December 27.

[C.H.]

 

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