Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Dharma Bums

As a general rule I am rather suspicious of people who don't read books, and even more so of people who don't read fiction.

Fiction as we know it now captures, in my humble opinion, something that is essentially human, a primordial need to tell tales, to explain the world into words. A true story is a precious thing, a made-up one pure magic. There are tales with atavistic resonance, forgettable ones, tales of power, stories one hates and stories one carries within forever; sentences that make your spine tingle and sutras you want to memorize. They can be given as gifts, passed on for generations, treasured and held and released.

Some of the most significant folks in my life have been lovers of books, who have gifted me with titles, physical objects, and unknown authors. One such person, a young world wonderer I was madly in love with, once gifted me with a copy of his favorite book The Dharma Bums.
Sceptical at first, I was not so much won over by Kerouac's haphazard writing style, than the character of Japhy Ryder, a Zen wonderer extraordinaire. Delighted to discover that he had a real-life equivalent in the poet Gary Snyder, whose works I soon began to devour. Over the years Snyder's poetry and essays, violent and gentle, in turns, changed something within me, or perhaps just helped me to discover something I had carried with me all along.

I discovered not only Zen Buddhism, but also a more seamless way to weave my being into this world, to try to be harmonious, less quarrel-some, and even happy.

In the great co-incidental way that things sometimes work, I was lugging both the Dharma Bums, as well as He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village in my bag today, when one of my dearest book-nerd friends pointed out that it was the man's 80th birthday, this very day!

So here's looking at you, old Japhy Ryder, Han Shan of Cascadia. May your travels be interesting for many years to come. May your mind wonder freely. Thank you for all of your beautiful gifts. I will think of you in small towns, mountains and dusty roadsides. (And you too, sometimes, Shaun.)

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Down valley a smoke haze Three days heat, after five days rain Pitch glows on the fir-cones Across rocks and meadows Swarms of new flies. I cannot remember things I once read A few friends, but they are in cities. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup Looking down for miles Through high still air.
(That there is Sourdough Mountain.)

Peace and love and beautiful books.


  1. Well said! I love books and writing too and I think the world would definitely be a lot less richer without them. Fiction isn't real, but it's all the more amazing because of that. There are things that fiction can talk about that can't be talked about any other way, I've always thought.

    Jack Kerouac was a cool writer too!

  2. "...a more seamless way to weave my being into this world..."

    I love that, now off to crack open a book... you inspire me :)

  3. I'll have to check those out. I'm a fiction lover myself.

  4. Ooh, I'll have to look into that book.

  5. I loved this entry so much! I haven't read Dharma Bums but now I certainly want to!

  6. darn it! It was a book I bought right after I read "On the Road" years ago, but still have not read it to this day!!! Now that you posted about it, will certainly do so!

  7. Aww. What a neat copy of The Dharma Bums! I always remember the passage where they are jumping along on the big boulders.

    I went to see Gary Snyder speak at my community college in Sacramento years ago. I refrained from bringing my copy of The Dharma Bums with me, but the guy in front of me did- and Gary signed it "From Japhy!". I thought that was awesome (and sometimes I think that Japhy would be a fine name for a little boy...)

  8. Ps I just finished the novel A Trip To The Stars by Nicholas Christopher (<-- or maybe it's the other way around). I highly recommend it! (I always recommend The Monsters Of Templeton to folks now too). I am now reading a crazy long biography of Emily Dickinson and loving being immersed in that world. Oh and my book club just read Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and we adored it- across the board book swooning!

  9. i loved dharma bums in high school. it was a perspective-changer, for sure.

    incidentally, one of the most japhy like people i have ever met does garden work for gary at his home in nevada county.