Sunday, August 26, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's, Part 53.4 (John Steinbeck)

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters
Steinbeck, John
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters

According to the sticker on the book, I bought this at Barnes & Noble for a whopping $14.95. Hard to believe I paid that for a crappy paperback – twenty plus years ago, no less! I bought it after the summer of Steinbeck. I am not sure which Barnes and Noble fleeced me for it, but I am pretty sure I got it after I became an English major and it I am sure it is the first book of belles-lettres I ever read. I must have spent quite a lot of time reading it.

Opening it now, I am struck by how clearly I remember the font. I couldn't tell you what font it is, but it is a somewhat unusual one for a mass market paperback–some kind of serif with a thick body, almost as if it were bolded. Each letter in collection has a heading with the name of the addressee writ large above a right-justified line running two-thirds the length of the page. The name is justified to the left edge of the line, if that makes any sense.

At the time I read these letters, I had almost no historical reference with which to understand what I was reading. Most of the names of the addressees–Henry Fonda, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjöld, Adlai Stevenson, et al.–flew right past me. Nevertheless, I remember enjoying it quite a bit.

A couple of years later, after I had become an English major, I was surprised to hear my medieval lit professor, possibly the worst teacher I ever had, mention the name Eugene Vidaver, which I recognized from the letters. Steinbeck was interested throughout his life in the Knights of the Roundtable, and eventually did a translation of the Mort d'Arthur. Vinaver is known for his edition of the works of Thomas Malory, according to Wikipedia.

After class, I mentioned to the professor that I recognized Vinaver's name from having read Steinbeck's letters. He paused, looked at me with a kind of bemused and incredulous look and asked, "Why did you read that?" I said, "Because I like Steinbeck." He stared for another few seconds, then said, "Hunh," and turned his back to me while he erased his etymological notes from the blackboard. That guy was a fairly strong argument against the tenure system.

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