I first read John Steinbeck in High School. While in the USA, Steinbeck is part of the American Canon for high school, in the Philippines he is hardly read in schools except by English Lit students in college.
The first Steinbeck book I read was the short novel “The Pearl”. Later on I tackled “Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Cannery Row” and “Winter of Discontent”. Steinbeck is best remembered for these novels. But he isn’t generally known for his essays and non-fiction.
My interest in Steinbeck deepened when my marine biology professor suggested I read the “Log from the Sea of Cortez”. In this travelogue, I learned about the other Steinbeck, the devoted marine biology student and scientist. The scientist has to keep an eye on nature and fish for pattern. And if you keep on doing so you may feel something “religious” and realize that you are related and linked to all and with all of nature. It is then advisable to “look from the tidepool and into the stars”.
Perhaps the best line in the “Log” is about marine biologists and life. The biologist revels in life and in living. And to live a good life we have to live. The business of life is in living.
But Steinbeck was also a journalist, war correspondent and social critic. He is part of that generation of American writers called the“lost generation”. This group that included Hemingway wrote of the travails of post World War I Europe, the rise of Fascism and the Great Depression. As writers have the commission of describing the human condition and in doing so as Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance, “write from the heart”, a good eye for the human condition is needed. Steinbeck excelled in this probably due to his earlier interest in marine biology, a course he took while attending Stanford.
So the impulse that sends a man to the tidepools is the same that inspires poetry. But I have a copy of Steinbeck’s essays and “America and the Americans” in my hand. Now my Steinbeck collection is complete. I read and I keep an open eye for the human condition that has hardly changed though our science has changed.
In “Always Something to do in Salinas” Filipinos are described picking the lettuce in Salinas in the 1930s. They still do in the first decade of the 21st century. Not all have lived the American Dream to its ideal. Filipinos are described in their dealings with the women.Nothing has changed. The grievous faults are exposed by the writer and the faults are still fresh and will ever be.
But the best Steinbeck essay is entitled “Some Random and Randy Thoughts on Books” Written in the age where the television was just becoming ascendant as the main media form, Steinbeck correctly predicted that books will remain as they have had. A book is somewhat sacred. Dictators have killed many people, the Inquisition burned the heretics but if a book is burned, the ultimate tyranny has been committed. Why?
The book is one of the realities of liberty. To be able to read anything you want is the ultimate liberty. In a man or woman’s mind, liberty must be absolute. And the only way to constrain this liberty is to burn a book. While censorship has been done in every media form, book censorship is the last line and people have been known to die for a book. We have our own Dr Rizal as a prime example.
We can pour our whole selves in the books we read or write. Steinbeck says that the writer has to subject one’s private life, sex life in his books. The reader then has the pleasure of reading the book alone. It is like great sex the pleasure of a good read. Like in sex, there is a certain communion in reading.
Thus the book is gladden the eye with its words. The price as Steinbeck suggests should be affordable.
There is something untranslatable about a book. As Steinbeck wrote, “It is in itself- one of the few authentic magics our species has created”
The best time for a good read is on a lazy rainy day!