Monday, October 1, 2007

why i read steinbeck

My first encounter with John Steinbeck's writing came in eleventh grade English class. In the preceding years, I mostly just read books for school because I was supposed to. There were a few that I enjoyed here and there, and in my high school years I began learning to appreciate various kinds of writing, but no school book had ever captured my attention like The Grapes of Wrath. I instantly became engrossed in the plot and emotionally attached to the characters, and at the same time I was fascinated by the structure of the novel itself and the style of the writing. I had never been so interested in class discussions, and I, shyest of all classroom spectators, even contributed once or twice to the conversation. At the time I had no idea why I liked the book so much, but I guessed that it had something to do with the author. So, in the following years, I made sure that Steinbeck was a prevalent figure in my summer reading. Some of his novels are rather heavy, while others are just plain quirky. The other day I finished reading East of Eden. Some consider this novel to be Steinbeck's masterpiece, and I can't say that I blame them. As I made my way with the characters through the pages of their story, I was repeatedly struck by the author's uncanny ability to portray his characters' humanity. He somehow makes them more real than reality. I don't really understand that either, but the stark, so-called "realist" novels just don't do it for me, so I have to assume that Steinbeck does something different, something higher, yet at the same time more down-to-earth. Maybe transcendent is the descriptor I am looking for. I know, it's really vague, but I am going to leave it for a moment because there is another reason that I like reading Steinbeck. I have always been the kind of reader who hangs on every word. It doesn't matter what I am reading: a news article, a chemistry textbook, ancient scripture, contemporary poetry, or a novel that is just for fun; I relish every syllable. Just try getting me to skim or scan anything. I even analyze cereal box literature if it is sitting in front of me and I have nothing else to do besides eat my cereal. Maybe I should be embarassed by that. My mom once enrolled me in a speed-reading class because she was worried that my leisurely pace would get me into trouble in school. It didn't work. I can't say that my low-velocity reading has caused much trouble, except maybe sleep deprivation. Anyway, my point is that, for better or for worse, I seem to have a heightened sense of writing styles. There are some that I like, some that I hate, some that I find unique or innovative, some that bore me, and then there are just a few that really resonate with whatever it is that my mind and spirit seem to expect to get from reading. Maybe you have guessed that Steinbeck's style falls into the latter category. I still can't quite put my finger on it, but there is something about his writing that to me seems darn near perfect as far as fiction writing goes. I only wish that I could write like him. I like reading Steinbeck because I want to write like him. Or maybe, after all that, I want to write like Steinbeck because I like reading him.

3 comments:

Vanessa Swenson said...

You sure that you shouldn't stick with lit instead of linguistics?
cereal boxes? oh my.

Nocturne said...

at least someone likes him :)

rantipoler said...

I have to say that Steinbeck is perhaps my very favorite author in th whole world. I read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Wayward Bus for my high school summer reading and fell in love immediately. Ever since I've wanted to go to Monterey and meet those characters because he made them so real and dear to me that I know they must be there! In fact, I sympathized with them so much I forgot that I was morally opposed to prostitution . . . Hmmm . . .