Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's, Part 53 (John Steinbeck)

The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck, John
The Grapes of Wrath

I think this is my high school textbook, but I could be wrong. I don't think I read all of it in high school, though I do remember reading some of it. I had a Steinbeck summer after my sophomore year in college, which led directly to my becoming an English major. It was the summer of 1989. I had transferred to Fordham, my third college, after a miserable, drug-addled semester at George Mason University.

After failing all of my classes for lack of attendance, I had been on the verge of telling my father to put me into rehab, when he asked if I thought transferring to a different college would be the best thing for me. So off I went to the Bronx. It didn't take long before I was up to my old tricks, but something had changed. I knew I had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol and that it would only get worse if I couldn't get a handle on it. About a month after I arrived, I convinced one of my comrades-in-kind-bud to go with me to an AA meeting. Remarkably, we have both remained sober since that day.

I spent the following summer in my parent's basement in Vienna, VA. It was the last summer that I lived at home, I think. I slept on a fold-out couch. During the day, I worked for my father's car rental company, writing car rental contracts and driving all over kingdom come to pick up new cars, drop people off and pick them up at National and Dulles airports, etc. When I was not working, I was in the basement smoking, reading, writing, and teaching myself how to play guitar. I probably spent the most time on guitar, but I was also training myself to read.

I say "training" because I had read somewhere that in order to become a writer you had to be a good reader. I was a terrible reader, so I concluded that if I wanted to write I had to first train myself to read. My biggest problem was that reading put me to sleep. I would read two pages and then my eyes would start to droop. At first I was angry with myself, but then I had a kind of epiphany. I decided to just go to sleep if I felt tired. I would read for five minutes, then pass out for fifteen. I would wake up and start reading again and sometimes fall asleep again. The key was to keep reading once I'd woken up. I managed to read something like fifty books that summer, and I have never had a problem reading since. I also started reading with a dictionary next to me, as my vocabulary was pitifully small.

Steinbeck was the first author I read that summer, mainly because I felt I had to read some of the books I'd missed in high school. Then followed Of Mice & Men, Cannery Row, The Winter of Our Discontent, The Pearl, and, finally, East of Eden. It was the latter that had the biggest effect on me at the time. There's a passage in which one of the brothers decides to become a writer. He sets up a binary opposition in his mind between the turmoil of artistry that pays off with greatness and the comfort of mediocrity that pays off with happiness. He decides that he must choose between the two, and chooses the life of the artist. Of course, he ends up committing suicide (which did not end up in the film version, btw).

In my young mind, though, this seemed like an important choice to make.

from The Grapes of Wrath

Read Chapter 19 here.

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