The late Jack Kerouac's semi-autobiographical Beat novel On the Road—which follows the characters Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac's good friend Neal Cassady) as they travel back and forth across the country, searching for America and themselves—turned 50 on September 5th. To mark the occasion, Viking has published a 50th anniversary edition of the book, as well as—in book-form—the original version of the novel that Kerouac wrote on a 120-foot-long scroll, and a new analysis of the book written by New York Times reporter John Leland entitled Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road' (They’re Not What You Think).

On the Road is just as vital today as it was 50 years ago, said Motoko Rich and Melena Ryzik on (paid subscription required). The book was a "clarion call for the Beat generation and, later, as an underground bible of the 1960s and '70s." It has "far outlasted many other cult classics" and part of the reason the novel has such staying power is that "popular artists keep referencing it." Walter Salles, who directed The Motorcycle Diaries, is making a film based on On the Road, and "everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys has been inspired by Kerouac."

Many young Americans have no idea who Jack Kerouac was, said Sean O'Hagan on "In an age where youth culture is increasingly defined by consumerism" and it’s "considered radical to be cool but not cool to be radical, whither Jack Kerouac and his beatific vision?" On the Road "has become a historical artefact," and "Harry Potter is today’s zeitgeist book."

OK, so maybe On the Road didn't change the world, said David Gates on, but there's still a lot that kids today, and even aging beatniks, can get out of the book. If the novel's "exaltation of junker cars and diner food had really taken hold, we'd have fewer SUVs and fast-food franchises." But the book continues to show readers "a more intense, more passionate—and more closely examined—life." And if you read it when you were young, you probably got "a liberating, life-changing blast of energy." But re-examine the book as an adult, and you just might find it to be "the saddest novel you’ll ever read."