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On The Road in Birmingham

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The manuscript scroll of On The Road by Jack Kerouac (BBC)

The manuscript scroll of On The Road by Jack Kerouac (BBC)

The scroll manuscript of On The Road, dubbed one of the most important pieces of literature of modern times, is now on show in Birmingham. Jack Kerouac’s genre defining novel was typed out furiously on 120ft of tracing paper so he didn’t have to stop, with only the power of coffee keeping him going. Now 50 years after the book was published in the UK the Barber Institute in Birmingham is showing one of the world’s most valuable and celebrated manuscripts.

The exhibition’s curator Professor Dick Ellis has admitted there was a lot of competition getting the scroll, which ironically has spent most of its life on the road.

“We’re very excited indeed,” he said. “This is an iconic manuscript. It is a record of the huge effort Kerouac put into composing it. It was 20 days of typing 6,500 words a day, flat out, in spontaneous composition. He wanted to record things with the most possible accuracy using the spontaneous technique. His typewriter became a compositional instrument.

Truman Capote once accused Kerouac of typing rather than writing; I would say he was learning the ability of using the typewriter like a jazz instrument, like a saxophone. He also had an incredible memory. And he had great speed at typing, he became a lightning typist. He came to be able to use a typewriter in a way that has not been seen before or since. Kerouac said he wrote fast because the road was fast.”

Of the total 120ft of printed text around a fifth will be on show in a specially built cabinet. Although visitors may have to tilt the heads slightly to read parts of the script, Ellis believes that it will help give visitor an insight into what Kerouac was all about. The scroll was bought by Jim Irasy owner of American football team Indianapolis Colts and is currently on a worldwide tour of museums and galleries. The scroll will be on show in Birmingham until 28 January.

The Guardian yesterday produced a quality blog post discussing whether or not Kerouac would be able to cope with modern day writing tools such as Word. Have a read here.

Listen to Kerouac read from On The Road accompanied by pretty pictures of the man himself below:

Discussion:
Who will be going to Birmingham to see this amazing artifact of modern literature? Does anyone know of any other quirky ways of writing a novel? Would anyone consider writing a book by hand these days and if so, why?

Words: Seamus Swords

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