Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading Log - Of Mice And Steinbeck

John Steinbeck and I go way back.

My parents were always very indulgent of my love of reading. When I was in elementary school, Mom and I would go to the mall almost every day after school, and almost every day she'd buy me a paperback. I would read it that evening, and be ready for another the next day. I went through almost everything published under the Dell imprint. It never occurred to me that Judy Blume's books were meant for girls, although it was several years later before I figured out what "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" was about.

I remember a big, unsorted bin of paperbacks in a local discount department store. They all had the same ugly, nondescript brown covers with swirling patterns. You had to read the title off the spine to tell them apart. I got several of them over the days and weeks that followed, but I only remember two of them, and only still have one.

The one I remember but no longer have was Jaws by Peter Benchley. The other, which I still have after all these years, is John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. I don't know exactly when I got it, but my paperback copy is a 60th printing (collector's edition!), with a note that the 59th printing was done the year I turned five.

Based on my memories of this book, I was probably around eight years old and in the third grade when I read it for the first time. I did a book report, possibly my first, on it while still in elementary school. I thought nothing of it at the time, but in retrospect that must have seemed a bit odd for my teacher when most of my classmates were probably writing reports on more Seussical works. I kept that report for many years after (I got a good mark and some surprised-sounding margin notes), but I think it's long gone now, probably lost in my post-idealism purge of all mementos of the public school system I grew to hate.

My other distinct early Of Mice And Men memory comes from my first few days in the fourth or fifth grade. The teacher tasked us with writing an essay on what the classroom would be like if we were in charge. As a budding nerd, I was mostly concerned with a well-stocked bookshelf. I specifically named Steinbeck as an author who would be well-represented. I remember exactly what the teacher wrote: "I'm impressed, especially with the fact that you like John Steinbeck." This pleased me immensely, because I still liked impressing teachers. That too would be lost before much longer.

From that early age I considered Steinbeck one of my favourite authors. That makes what I'm about to say all the more strange: almost thirty years passed before I actually read another of his books.

I'm not sure why. I've never stopped reading. I've slowed down from my childhood book-a-day habit, certainly, but I maintained a book a week for many years, and still manage several each year. However, my book purchases tend to be haphazard. I go to library book sales and load up my "To Read Someday" shelves, and when I finish one book I go to the shelves and grab another. I just never happened to find any Steinbeck under those circumstances, and I was too busy with the books I already had to go looking for him specifically.

That changed a little while back. I found some cheap Steinbeck volumes, added them to the collection, and eventually they worked their way to the top of the pile.

I started with Cannery Row, perhaps because it was closer in size to Of Mice And Men than The Grapes Of Wrath, which I (correctly) figured would represent a longer commitment.

Cannery Row has no overarching plot. It is about people, rather than events. There is no great conflict, except perhaps the universal conflict of people struggling against their own worst tendencies. The villains of the book, if there are any, are the classic Deadly Sins, with Greed and Sloth heading the pack. The characters know what they ought to do, but all too often find it more expedient to do something else.

The book is a series of vignettes of people living in a poor seaside neighbourhood. Most of the characters are drunken reprobates with the best of intentions. They are all well-drawn and very likable, and the reader quickly ends up caring what happens to each of them. Even the gang of bums who live in a shed and lie, steal, and brawl more out of habit than necessity come off as people you wouldn't mind knowing.

I was not disappointed. It was a quick, easy read and assured me that my childhood admiration of Steinbeck was not misplaced. Cannery Row spawned a sequel, Sweet Thursday, which I promptly borrowed from my library (where I was surprised to find an excellent Steinbeck selection) and a movie adaptation that reportedly combines elements from both books. The movie is evidently unavailable on DVD, but is readily available on AVI, if you know what I mean, so I'll be watching it as soon as I finish the second book. I've been making Sweet Thursday a pretty high priority, which is part of why I haven't written much here lately.

Enough rambling. We interrupt our regularly scheduled series of pictures from our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting to bring you something that's actually relevant to this post. Here's a blurry picture of my battered paperback copy of Of Mice And Men. Better focus would not have made the cover pattern any more attractive.


RebelAngel said...

I can't stop smiling at the image of a teacher of 30 little 8 year old flipping through book report after book report of "Horton Hears a Who" or "Henry and Ribsy" at best and then seeing one one "Of Mice and Men" Surprised margin notes, indeed. Too bad you don't still have it. I bet it would be a hoot.

You know you must have gotten mentioned in the teachers' lounge or even to her family over dinner. 11 year old has finished Harry Potter and Narnia (among many other child books) perhaps I should send her on to more meaty fare.

HomeSchooler said...

You crack me up, and bring back fond memories. I was in grade 3 when reading "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." It just so happened that I was reading it during SSR (sustained silent reading - for those not familiar with the "system) and that we had a substitute teacher that day - the vicar's wife.

I happened to run across a word I didn't comprehend: "period." Oh, I knew the grammatical meaning, but in the context of the book it obviously had a different meaning. So I raised my hand and asked the teacher the meaning of the word.

Her reaction (in retrospect) was hilarious. She read the sentence and her eyes widened. She stood up ramrod straight, still holding the book. She flipped to the front cover, then to the back. As she read the precis, she evidently didn't approve of what she read. She became agast, stuttering incoherently for a few moments. Then she slammed the book shut (as much as one can do so with a paperback) and informed me, "You are too young to read this book. Put it away." She then dropped it on my desk and huffed away.

Needless to say, I was astounded at her reaction and more than a little annoyed. All I'd asked for was a definition, and if I had no trouble reading the rest of the book, how could it be "too old" for me? She didn't even offer me the opportunity to go to the front of the room to look up the word in the big dictionary!

After school, of course I told my Mum what had happened, and (as she chuckled) asked her the meaning of the word "period."

I can't remember her exact words, but I do remember that she just explained the meaning to me in a very basic, straightforward way. I came away thinking, "Oh? Is that all? Why'd the teacher get so upset about that?"

I proceeded to read the rest of the book, and then, still having the priorities of a little child, I promptly forgot almost all that she'd told me! It came back to me when it was re-explained at an older age.

For some time, however, I was befuddled as to why the teacher became so upset, after all, we went to school for education, and wasn't the learning of vocabulary (not to mention anatomy) part of education?