I remember reading On the Road in college and not liking it very much. It wasn’t bad, but not memorable either. A few years later I came across the Original Scroll version, published in 2007 to commemorate the book’s 50th anniversary. Many essays have recounted the long process of how the book came to be published in 1957, from notebooks kept by Kerouac to aborted drafts to the three weeks in April 1951 when he typed out a manuscript in long sessions of ‘spontaneous prose’. Kerouac took his notes and ran with them, trying to get as close to his memories and emotions and get them all down on paper. He taped teletype paper together to form one long 120′ scroll to allow him to type continuously without changing sheets of paper. Sentences a hundred words long. Paragraph lasting dozens of pages. (The published version from 2007 came with an editor’s note explaining which typos stayed in, and which were corrected. ) When I read the scroll version I could not put it down. The prose was a current to get captured in, taken along for the ride. It felt like a completely different experience, reading the ‘unedited’ version.
The scroll still exists. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay bought it a few years ago, and it went on tour for the 50th anniversary. I haven’t seen it in person, but the pictures were enough to pique my interest. One hundred twenty feet, aged yellow paper, spooled out in various galleries. I wanted to see it, and decided to make one. Art supply stores sell 50 yard rolls of trace. Electric typewriters go for as low as $20 on craigslist. Brother still sells replacement typewriter ribbons. I got an electric Panasonic and started typing.
This isn’t scholarly. It isn’t historic. It is a strange act, maybe of tribute or simulation. Hunter S Thompson rewrote The Great Gatsby to learn the craft of writing. Keruoac used a scroll to allow him to type as fast as he could. I don’t want to be a writer and I am painfully slow at transcribing, and it seems like every third word has a typo (I plan on naming my scroll ‘On teh Road’ as a result). Despite this, watching the scroll grow has been a fascinating and satisfying process. I am halfway done, in no rush to finish. When the scroll is finished (not a guarantee given the state of the typewriter) I think I’ll unroll it down the sidewalk to see what 120′ looks like.