Monday, August 13, 2007


My oldest son is due to go back to school on Thursday. He's in his second year of advanced English classes and the last thing his new teacher did before school let out last spring was hand them all a copy of the Grapes of Wrath to read over the summer.

Naturally my son hasn't bothered to read it yet. I mentioned it to him last night, his eyes rounded and he made "Oh yeah. I forgot" sounds. He added an embarassed comment concerning first impressions and said he would read it over the next couple of days. It shouldn't be too hard, he said. It's not that long.

This is not Harry Potter, I told him. Not even close. I read it in high school. You'll want to spend some time with this one to be sure you "get it".

What year did you have to read it?

Oh, I didn't have to read it. I read it --brace yourself--for fun.

He stared at me strangely.

I went off to bed, telling my husband that I was clearly a literary geek, aka a leek, in the same sense that other people are science geeks (seeks?). He said that was okay because leeks got him hot. He's a very smart man.

My Arkansas high school wasn't training potential English majors (they were just happy we could spell). Reading was not emphasized and our exposure to good literature was limited. However, for some reason, I suspected I should read things like The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Sun also Rises, Lord of the Flies, The Count of Monte Carlo, As I lay Dying, etc. For once, I was right.

Confession? I hated the Grapes of Wrath. I don't know what Steinbeck was thinking. I like nearly everything else he wrote (though not so much The Red Pony), but I think he really missed the boat with this one. Summary: Everybody's crops died because of a drought, everybody decided to go to California. Lots of people died or gave up along the way. One grieving woman (which Steinbeck painted up as shallow and self-serving), whose child was born dead after months of hoping and dreaming, offered her breast milk to a sick man (a symbol of her change from self-serving to selflessness). The end.

I understand the sub-text. I understand what Steinbeck was driving toward, but the vehicle he used was inappropriate and demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the population of people he was writing about. I reached this conclusion on my own at sixteen and have confirmed it with an attempted re-read in recent years.

See? Leek.


zach said...

Well - I am 17 years old and I understand why your son is not very keen in reading that book, because it is only fun to read the books that you pick out for yourself.

Oh and i love reading.

Dennis Bryant said...

If it's any comfort, I didn't care for Grapes of Wrath either. I find that literature isn't enjoyable unless it engages me on a personal level.

For example, I have heard the suggestion many times that The Great Gatsby is the best American novel ever written. I won't argue the point--I'll even concede that it may very well be--but I hated it from the first word to the last. Great literature, but a lousy read.

At this stage in my life I've decided that life is too short for fiction that I don't enjoy. Your son on the other hand is about to have a character-builting experience :-) I wish him well.

Mary O. Paddock said...

Hi Zach--I agree with you basically. But some lit you have think of in terms of "eating your veggies". They may not taste as good as icecream, but later on, during flu season (college), you'll be glad you ate 'em.

H Dennis,

Though I am loathe to confess it in public, I didn't like the Great Gatsby either. The biggest problem? I had trouble liking any of the characters.

I've actually thought about this a little lately: Why is it that so many of the literary "classics" are about people I wouldn't want to live next door to?