‘Dharma Bums’ Taught Me Not to Judge Those Going After Their Dreams


Kind of randomly for my work book club I chose Dharma Bums by Jack Karouac. Frantically a few weeks prior to the meeting I read online that Dharma Bums was a sequel to On The Road. In a few weeks I read both books. Don’t believe everything you read online, these books are NOT part of a series.

Karouac made fictional character names after his literary friends for both works, but these are stand-alone books. For On The Road the narrator’s name is Sal Paradise, in Dharma Bums the narrator’s name is Ray Smith.  I think most people are familiar with the premise of On the Road so for this entry I’ll concentrate on one aspect of Dharma Bums that I believe will stay with me.

To me the Buddhism in the book has a fake tone. Although I’m sure taking on Eastern religion was part of a movement in the 1950’s I glossed over the references.  The Dharma part of the book was lost on me.  Roughly phrased, I connected to the Bums idea of the story.

Hitching rides across the country, mediation, and hiking mountains were things the characters wanted to do. And they made it happen spending long amounts of time doing their pursuits.  Today there is pressure for people to have a career and be productive citizens. I imagine in the 1950’s people that simply wanted to climb mountains were seen as deviant from the norm.

Twice in the book in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and later at his mother’s house in the Carolina’s the locals poke fun at the main character for being different. The character is educated and the reader assumes capable of work. But the character consciously focuses on studying Buddhism, self-reflection, and hiking mountains.

To me you could substitute Dharma Bum with writer, musician, artist, skateboarder, surfer, or any person with a pursuit that’s important enough to him or her to pass on a traditional career. In New York City several assume that people pursuing something without a career are trust fund kids. I’m learning that the majority of the time that is not the case. The individuals have ambition, and they revolve their lives around developing those crafts.

I’ve heard the phrase that a published writer is one that didn’t quit.  Everything takes practice, and there are only so many hours in a day.  Society should want great books, great art, and great music. Also I believe physical skills like skateboarding, and climbing mountains have value too. Successful creative people probably do make a sacrifice and make their art form a priority.

For me I took a very safe route in life by getting a degree for a career I thought I’d like. I’m very lucky that there are many things I love about being a librarian. After reading Dharma Bums I think I understand that there is an alternative to pursue whatever one wants.  Even though I may be too chicken to work less so I could write or skate more, I should not judge the people that do pursue their dreams. Most great things come out of calculated risk, and human ambition.


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