Dharma Bums

Writing 101 assignment for the day: Write about a loss

If you want to read something depressing you can check out the post I wrote for Day 2. I just can’t go there again so today’s post will be about a loss that turned into a gift.

dharma bumsI was about ten years old and had missed school the day before. My teacher sent me to the school library by myself to check out some books for the week. I think by that time I had read everything of interest already but I found a couple of titles and headed toward the checkout. The librarian was looking through a box of donated books. Delighted with her windfall she invited me to admire her little treasure horde. I believe fate led me to that moment in time and space.

My attention was drawn immediately to the image you see to the left. My favourite books all had animal protagonists but I had never read about a monkey hero. (Spoiler: there are no monkeys in this book!) Waving the book in the librarian’s face, I dared ask if I could borrow it even though it hadn’t been catalogued yet. It would be our little secret. The librarian’s smile and friendliness vaporized as soon as she saw the cover. She actually snatched the book out of my hands as if it were toxic and mumbled something about the unlikelihood of THAT book ever getting catalogued into a Catholic school’s library.


Like most children I was pretty obedient so I didn’t think much about the incident. If I did I was probably thankful for dodging some kind of unspecified danger.

And then one day I became a teenager. A teenager who liked books. We had a great public library just down the street from our house. I spent whole days wandering through the stacks. On one of those days I happened to see the unmistakable red and black cover of The Dharma Bums on the paperback display.


Of course I borrowed it. Reading The Dharma Bums was kind of like my own private 911. After that experience everything changed.

I loved this book. Probably because it had once been forbidden. Who among us can resist Bluebeard’s door?

I realize I would not like it as much today so I doubt I will revisit it. Embarrassing misogyny and weird misunderstandings of Buddhism would make it an uncomfortable experience but my first innocent reading of it influenced me profoundly.

The Dharma Bums was my gateway drug for American literature. It exists in a kind of middle ground between traditional literature and contemporary writing. The transcendentalism, environmentalism and nonconformity of Thoreau and Emerson remain alive and well in this book though it was written in 1950s.

“The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

The syntax and vocabulary are modern but the sentiment leads all the way back to Concord, Massachusetts. Because of Kerouac, I read Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau pretty much expresses everything I feel about wilderness and activism.

The Dharma Bums also led me into the future. I stopped reading guys like Poe and looked to William Carlos Williams, one of Kerouac’s mentors and contemporary poets like Sharon Olds whose writing is a kind of logical conclusion to the experimental writing of the mid 20th century.

Besides directing me onto the path of American literature it also sparked an interest in Buddhism. I don’t describe myself as Buddhist but I appreciate its teachings about mindfulness and suffering. Everyday I try to live up to those standards.

Books can be powerful objects. My school librarian was right about that.


4 thoughts on “Dharma Bums

  1. They say when the student is ready the teacher appears. Perhaps having that book revealed and then hidden again was all a part of your particular lesson plan.


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