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15 of the Best Quotes from On the Road

Books Lists Jack Kerouac
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Drugs, decay and madness, oh my!

Both a cult classic and beloved Common Core teaching tool for angsty teenagers, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a defining work of contemporary American literature and perhaps the poster child of the larger Beat movement.

Hammered out in a haze of benzedrine binges and over sweating plates of apple pie, On the Road follows Kerouac (or, really, Sal Paradise, his fictionalized self-insert character) as he embarks on a series of road trips out west with his elusive, hot mess of a womanizing best friend, the two men in search of glory, God and a bigger, broader meaning of life.

Kerouac falls in love with every woman he sees, picks cotton in wayward fields, starves himself to delirium and documents every waking moment of it. Here’s our list of the 15 best quotes from Kerouac’s opus.

1. On leaving

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

2. On fleeting passion

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”

3. On finding yourself

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

4. On mercy

“My aunt once said that the world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness. ”

5. On finding God

“As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, ‘Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.’”

6. On anonymity

“What difference does it make after all?—Anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven, for what’s heaven? What’s earth? All in the mind.”

7. On friendship

“The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

7. On letting go

“My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realized no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad.”

8. On American values

“I suddenly began to realize that everybody in America is a natural-born thief.”

9. On American values (continued)

“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”

10. On writing

“Hell man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except that you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.”

11. On values

“I believed in a good home, in sane and sound living, in good food, good times, work, faith and hope. I have always believed in these things. It was with some amazement that I realized I was one of the few people in the world who really believed in these things without going around making a dull middle class philosophy out of it. I was suddenly left with nothing in my hands but a handful of crazy stars.”

12. On ecstasy

“And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach and which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the Angels dove off and flew into infinity.”

13. On knowledge and its power

“But you can go on thinking and imagining forever further and stop at no decisions to pick up a bag for the thinkings. Turn your thinking into your work, your thoughts a book, in sieges.”

14. On traveling

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

15. On the road

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


Savannah Sicurella is an intern at Paste and listens to a lot of trashy boy-pop. You can follow her on Twitter.

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