I’ve long been a huge fan of John Steinbeck’s writing and his humanist, critical examinations of not just the American experience, but of what it is to be human, to struggle against greed and oppression, and most of all, with our own demons. The fact that Of Mice and Men doesn’t even make the top three here should say something, as that’s the book I read in my early teens that made me want to be a writer. It was the first book that hit me right in the gut and said—This is what you are supposed to be doing! The following three books helped shape my worldview in such a way that I’d say his ideals and passions are more important to who I am as a person than any other artist.
#3: Travels With Charley: In Search of America
One of the great American road stories, a nonfiction piece about John loading up his camper, Rocinante, and taking his French poodle Charley across the lower 48 to find the answer to the question, “Who are Americans today?” He found a wide array of answers from rural northern Maine to the northwest to the deep south, and while some he found fascinating and warmed his heart, some answers he did not enjoy (let’s just say racism, sadly, is a problem America always has and might always deal with). The book asks us to take a good long look at ourselves in the mirror and realize, for good or ill, that we are not “one nation, one people” but a vast sea of experiences and ideas, and that if we’re going to make it, we’d better get used to the idea of living shoulder to shoulder with people who are different. At least that’s what I got from the book. A classic, a must read.
#2: Grapes of Wrath
Yes, this one has some dry passages that I had to push through with some taut determination even in the height of my fandom, but the thunderous heart and soul of this book is undeniable. There’s so much sadness and pain in how we treat each other just to get ahead, but there's also hope and decency too. And while the book may take place during the Dust Bowl era, I believe this story perfectly summarizes America during any age, socially and economically, how the system is build from the top down to keep a class structure intact to keep the machine going, and in this machine some people will never ever get ahead no matter how hard they try, but that communities can still spring up from this, can create pockets of change, showing we can govern ourselves fairly if we try, if peace and fairness is more important than a quick buck, and that a government can be a tool to more evenly balance the powers between the haves and the have-nots. This book is America, and has shaped my political views more than any other novel.
#1: Cannery Row
There will never be enough praise that I can give this book, a perfect “ensemble cast” novel of all the people who live along Cannery Row—artists, bums, shop keepers, scientists, madams, ladies of the night, and more, all looking for a little peace and prosperity, some getting it, some getting a lot of trouble on the way to getting it, but the intentions are good here, as are the hearts. Some TV shows, movies, and books fail me because there are so few likable characters, and this is the opposite. Everyone here is likable in their own crazy way, and by the end, though much has happened, all is still the same as it ever was. It feels like a place out of time, a time out of reach, and it’s a place where I like to go every few years to find a little solace and happiness in a world lacking those things. It’s not just in my top three Steinbeck books, it’s easily in my top three books of all time.