Tuesday 2 October 2012

John Steinbeck - How He's Awesome and Why There's All The Pressure

Today is the first day of posting for Laura's Grapes of Wrath readalong. If you want to join in (and you totally should) you can do that here. And so, today is the day we are supposed to post about our previous experiences of Steinbeck and suchlike. I first tried to read The Grapes of Wrath when I was about thirteen and hated it. This is probably where I went wrong with Dickens as well - I just really didn't have the appreciation for the complexity and detail in the writing when I was that age. Let's face it, I was still in the tale end of my Saddle Club phase, and fully immersed in The Babysitters Club. Not the most complex of series, but anyway. Borrowed it from the library, tried to read it for about a week, got through approximately two pages, gave up and took it back. Then we got to GCSEs and all of the other English classes in my year (literally, all of them) were studying Of Mice and Men, but because we had a teacher who actually trusted us to read a book that was proper length, we studied To Kill a Mockingbird, and thus I avoided more reading of Steinbeck. 

Fast-forward six years and I started a very (very) brief phase of tutoring Korean kids for English Literature GCSE, and so I finally had to actually get myself together and read Of Mice and Men, and eek. There I was, happily reading away and thinking about how the book was kind of great in a really subtle way but not a lot was happening, and then the last few pages happened without me really noticing and I reached the end of the book, shut it, opened it again, re-read the last few paragraphs, shut it again, opened it again, and went back to the beginning. I love that book. I don't think any book before or since has had quite so much of a 'what the fuck just happened while I was momentarily daydreaming about cupcakes' kind of impact on me. Brilliant.

Then last year I signed up to read East of Eden for the now defunct Classics Circuit, and that was also a brilliant idea. I knew it was going to be a better experience than the epic failure with The Grapes of Wrath because reading the pages of description which make up the beginning I kept stopping to read bits out to whoever happened to be there at the time. I really enjoyed it, especially for its' darkness. I loved that Steinbeck wasn't afraid to create characters that it was pretty impossible to like, and that he didn't particularly seem to care about conforming to social stereotypes of what people (mothers, especially) should be like. 

I know little to nothing about Steinbeck himself, but my research tells me that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature which is pretty impressive, so well done for that, Steinbeck. Also that he was from California (which I'd kind of guessed, because his books appear to be mostly set in California...), and that he never actually graduated from college, which just goes to show what can be achieved without a degree. 

I'm really excited about The Grapes of Wrath, and I'm really hoping that I'll still be able to finish it once the baby is here with us. We shall see!


  1. I read only selected chapters from "The Grapes of Wrath" and I found it as dry, arid and tough as the journey the characters embark on. But if you liked "East of Eden", I think I should give it a try!

  2. Oooo yay for Steinbeck not finishing college! Me neither. I wanna high five him.

    I hope I like GoW. It'd be nice to be on the Steinbeck bandwagon.

  3. AGH I'm so excited about this book. I've been meaning to read it since I finished EoE a couple years ago, and this is pretty much the best situation in which to do so.

  4. I read Grapes as a teen as well and I think I'm in the same boat as you, where I was too young to appreciate it. At least I hope that's the case.

  5. You can do it! It's good for babies to cry a bit... Hahaha

    I loooove your Of Mice and Men story (OMG the last pages of that book... weep-o-rama!) And East of Eden is SO good and I like Grapes just as much as that, only for different reasons. So I really hope you like it! If it helps, I read Pride and Prejudice when I was like 13 and I thought Jane Austen was the stupidest ever, and now I'm just like JANEEEEEE! The same is clearly going to happen to you, baby permitting!

  6. Oh, gosh. John Steinbeck. I'm madly, passionately, head-over-heels in love with this man. He's one of few writers (with Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut & J.K. Rowling) who I adore both for their works and for their "real" personalities.

    Anyway, yes, The Grapes of Wrath. Arguably one of the greatest pieces of American literature of all time. It's just brilliant. The way it is divided into three sections, based on the Biblical (Old Testament) plight of the Jews (Opression/Exodus/Promised Land). Not to mention the brilliant narrative approach, with the intercalary chapters which bring the readers' gaze from a narrow look at the Joad family and onto the larger plight of the midwestern farming/ranching families in general.

    I also love his exploration of philosophy - there are four at work in this books: Humanism (Whitman/Sandburg), Agrarianism (Jefferson), Oversoul (Emerson), and Pragmatism (Henry James). It's fun to see all of these philosophies competing for attention, buth in Steinbeck's mind and in the work itself. Which one will win, in the end!?

    Anyway, yeah, I could go on for ages about this book, and about Steinbeck. I just recently re-read this book for one of my doctoral seminars, which is why it is so fresh in my mind.

    P.S. I love East of Eden, too. I'm planning on reading Cannery Row very soon.

    1. You've got me intrigued, that's for damn sure! Now I just have to go look up what all those philosophies are so I can appreciate them when I come across them in my reading...

  7. First, I need to say THANK YOU for reminding me of the Saddle Club books. I had completely forgotten them! I loved those things.

    Your description of Of Mice and Men makes me reaalllly want to read it next.

  8. Saddle Cluuuuub!!! Ah man, my heart. Great post! I'm so excited for this book and this group. Good luck babying!

  9. Steinbeck does not approve of us daydreaming about cupcakes, and he planned AHEAD for that. BAM!

    But yeah, Of Mice and Men had a similar effect on me...although I think I was prepared for the weepiness because I had just been wrecked by The Red Pony. Good old Steinbeck. He's nothing if not consistent.

    Don't you kind of love that you can tell your baby one day that you were reading Grapes of Wrath right before he or she entered the world? I wish MY mom could say that.