Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

April 7, 2020

Jack Kerouac, “Book of Sketches” (Penguin)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 6:42 pm
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Penguin Poets, published in 2006, written 1952-1957, 413 pages

kerouac book of sketches

More “books” of previously unpublished and uncollected material by Jack Kerouac have been published since his passing than were published in his lifetime. Not all of it has been essential or flattering to his reputation, and I think we all know the financial reasons for the publishing of so many works that I won’t discuss in a public forum, but the Kerouac reader is certainly lucky to have access to so many fugitive pieces, and to be honest, most of the posthumously-published books can be gotten fairly cheaply since they are not really in-demand.

Penguin issued three collections a decade or two ago, all of which are of interest: BOOK OF BLUES, BOOK OF HAIKUS, and the one I’m discussing today, BOOK OF SKETCHES. I did not buy any of those books new. I waited until I stumbled across them at Half-Price Books or another used bookstore at 1/3 the cover price. I probably picked up SKETCHES around 2010-2012 at a local HPB. At the time, I skimmed it, gave a close read to perhaps 1/3 of the pieces at random, thought “that’s nice to have,” and put it on the shelf. Recently, working at home due to COVID-19 and not going out very much, I’ve been rediscovering books I did not give adequate attention to when I got them, and the BOOK OF SKETCHES is one of them I’ve been sampling for the last 10 days.

The last few evenings I’ve been re-reading the initial “sketches,” the first hundred pages or so, and they have really connected with me. Essentially, what you’ve got here is JK’s free-associational close-description of his immediate environment. For the first 98 pages of the book, that’s his sister Caroline’s house in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where she lived with her husband Paul and their son. Kerouac does not refer to himself as “I” but “Jack” in the 3rd person, and mostly it’s just a flow of naturalistic detail. The “form” is basically the dimensions of his pocket notebook, which provides line-breaks.

For instance, here is an excerpt from a random page:


a green glass dish–

for candy–  a glass 

ashtray–   & two

brass candle holders–

these things  lumi-

nescent in the glow 

from the windows

in still, fan-buzzing,

lazy Carolina afternoon

time.  On the 

radio a loud pro-

longed static from

nearby disturbances

rasps a half


       On the wall

above the husband’s

diningtable chair

hangs a knickknack

shelf, with 3 levels,

   tiny Chinese vase

   bowl with cover–

copper horse eques-

trian &  still in its

petite mysterious

    shelf–  & Chinese

porcelain rice-girl

with hugehat   &

double baskets


Another page in this section spends a page or two on the shades of the pink paint on the dining room wall of his sister’s home, catching both the painting anomalies and the variation in the shadows on the wall!

Among the 400+ pages, there are a number of different settings–Montreal, New York, Denver, Kansas, San Francisco,  and any number of characters along the way, the people on the street, in diners, children playing, etc. It truly is like an artist’s sketchbook, which is what Kerouac set out to do. Are these “finished” pieces intended for publication? Of course not.

However, Kerouac had a fine eye for detail, a fine ear for sound. I’m reminded of some of the more phenomenological detail-oriented sections of a book like LONESOME TRAVELER. If the intention was to catch the now, the detail in-the-moment, these sketches succeed admirably. Perhaps he intended to use some of this as raw material to  fuel the memory for place-specific details in future writings–perhaps not. It matters not because the end result is something of value for the reader, not just for the writer. Considering you can get a copy of this for under $5, it’s really an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys that side of Kerouac. I certainly do. I also appreciate an open-form book such as this. Perhaps the one Kerouac book I would take to the proverbial desert island would be SOME OF THE DHARMA, also an open-form work.

It’s not for everyone, but the BOOK OF SKETCHES is a unique and precious work for me. There are so many sections of varying lengths that whenever you’ve got 5 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, you can be taken away to the scene where JK is jotting phrases in his notebook. If the above sounds interesting, pick up a copy… right now, I see six copies available for six dollars and under POSTPAID in the US on Ebay…and the chunky 5″ x 6″ size makes it convenient to take along with you.


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