I want to talk about John Steinbeck.
Reading Cannery Row for the first time was a formative experience for me. I still think about Doc and Mack and the boys as friends. When I met them again in Sweet Thursday, it was a deeply emotional reunion. I am embarrassed to confess that it took me thirty years on this planet to discover John Steinbeck, but once I did, I devoured his novels like I would a Sunday roast: slowly, deliberately and completely. Yet still I feel I haven’t had enough. I keep wanting to go back a reread The Grapes of Wrath and The Pastures of Heaven, because I know that when I do, I will have an entirely new string of insights, and a great deal of raw pleasure just in revelling in the pure beauty and power of Steinbeck’s prose.
I’ve been trying to read East of Eden for about five years now. The reason I cannot seem to finish it is simply because I do not want to. I’ll read just a few pages, sometimes two, sometimes twenty, before he stops me dead with a line or a passage I just cannot get over. I’ll read the same thing over and over, until I feel I have sucked everything I can from it. Then I’ll fold over a corner of the page, put it the damned thing down on my nightstand and let it brew for a few weeks or even months. Often, upon returning to it, I’ll go back a few pages (just to get back into the story) and hit that same page that arrested me before, and have to put the book down all over again.
Consider this bit:
Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.
And then there is the page I must have read about twenty times by now:
Tom felt his darkness. His father was beautiful and clever, his mother was short and mathematically sure. Each of his brothers and sisters had looks or gifts or fortune. Tom loved all of them passionately, but he felt heavy and earth-bound. He climbed ecstatic mountains and floundered in the rocky darkness between the peaks. He had spurts of bravery but they were bracketed in battens of cowardice.
Samuel said that Tom was quavering over greatness, trying to decide whether he could take the cold responsibility. Samuel knew his son’s quality and felt the potential of violence, and it frightened him, for Samuel had no violence—even when he hit Adam Trask with his fist he had no violence. And the books that came into the house, some of them secretly—well, Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands.
Violence and shyness—Tom’s loins needed women and at the same time he did not think himself worthy of a woman. For long periods he would welter in a howling celibacy, and then he would take a train to San Francisco and roll and wallow in women, and then he would come silently back to the ranch, feeling weak and unfulfilled and unworthy, and he would punish himself with work, would plow and plant unprofitable land, would cut tough oakwood until his back was breaking and his arms were weary rags.
It is probable that his father stood between Tom and the sun, and Samuel’s shadow fell on him. Tom wrote secret poetry, and in those days it was only sensible to keep it secret. The poets were pale emasculates, and Western men held them in contempt. Poetry was a symptom of weakness, of degeneracy and decay. To read it was to court catcalls. To write it was to be suspected and ostracized. Poetry was a secret vice, and properly so. No one knows whether Tom’s poetry was any good or not, for he showed it to only one person, and before he died he burned every word. From the ashes in the stove there must have been a great deal of it.
What a great passage to get lost in. Like Tom and his books and his women, I have rolled and wallowed in this passge, crawled and grovelled in it, and come up with it all over my face and hands. And every time I do, I punish myself with the thought that I should be doing the same thing with so many other aspects of my life.
It seems we are always rushing these days from one thing to the next. Sometimes getting a thing done quickly has merit. If it is something we do not like, it feels better to get it behind us. But I wonder how much we miss by not taking our time with our pleasures. If we engaged ourselves more fully, and more mindfully with the things we like doing, would they not extend both in breadth and depth? It is a difficult thing to do in an age of efficiency and instant gratification, but learning to slow down and to suck the marrow out of what we love must be a way to make our lives both richer and simpler.
I have not been bored for about a decade. There is always something to do – even when I am stuck doing something I don’t like. But these distractions can easily become a habit, and before I know it, I spend a day flitting from one distraction to the next. Far better, I think, to spend my time on one big thing, to devote my attention to it completely, and to extract every ounce of enjoyment and fulfilment from it.
Life should be poetry: slow and fully imbued with significance. It should not become the ashes of wasted dreams collected and forgotten.