Enjoying the Classics (or Why I Love Steinbeck)

I like to mix things up when I’m reading, so I will often follow up fiction with non-fiction and vice versa. I also like to check in with classic authors every so often to remind myself what great writing is all about (not that there aren’t any great modern writers, but let’s be honest…the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds are fewer and farther between nowadays). I have to admit though that I’m not a huge fan of the classics, but I do have a soft spot for American masters. Which brings me to John Steinbeck.

Somehow I managed to get through high school and four years of college without having ever read a Steinbeck novel. The closest I ever came was seeing the 1992 Gary Sinise film version of Of Mice and Men. I always assumed that I wouldn’t like Steinbeck because he was too commercially successful, and that is in fact what many critics argued when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Then something interesting happened to change my mind — I read a Steinbeck novel!

As a graduate student in English at NAU a few years ago I took a class in which we had to read East of Eden. I remember thinking to myself it was going to be a struggle and that I’d have to slog through it, but once I started reading the words on the page I was sucked in. This post isn’t about East of Eden, but suffice it to say it is now one of my all-time favorite novels and features one of my all-time favorite literary characters in Samuel Hamilton.

Steinbeck writes about everyday people and chronicled the American experience during his career, which spanned from 1927 with the publication of his first novel to his death in 1968. His political views played a major role in his writing, and his characters always seemed to say something powerful about what it takes to overcome poverty, hardship and even persecution. He was his generation’s Michael Moore, and for me that’s a good thing. He also touches on themes of religion and the difference between right and wrong, yet he does so without espousing any religious convictions or spirituality — giving him major points in my book.

After I graduated from NAU I decided to go back and, over time, read the entire Steinbeck collection. I’ve since read Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. This weekend, after several mediocre reads, I decided it was time for a palate cleanser so I am now reading To a God Unknown. After just a few pages I feel like I’ve been rejuvinated. It’s such a pleasure to sink into Steinbeck’s warm storytelling and near perfect structure.

Just saying.

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