It’s been a pretty messed up week in America. Legally, a grown man shot a boy and walked free. In Texas, Senate deputies confiscated tampons from women’s purses in a public “debate” on abortion laws. A major American city declared bankruptcy. We completely forgot that the NSA is collecting an archive of every single thing we do.
Another thing that happened this week was that I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. I read every night before I go to sleep (except post-cocktails ETC.), if only just a few pages. It took me 6 months to finish Anna Karenina in this vein back in 2010, even longer to finish Gone With The Wind in ’04. A road trip and pool loungin’ vacation expedited the process of this one and Grapes only took a couple months. But I don’t think I could have finished it at a more appropriate or needed time.
The Grapes of Wrath is about an “everyman” family that, along with hundreds of thousands of other families, picks up and moves from their tenant farming plots in Oklahoma to the central valleys of California following promises of fertile land and ample work. It’s political and poetic and straight up one of the best books I’ve ever read… but it took a while to come to that conclusion because the writing is sometimes a bit inaccessible before you get sucked in.
Steinbeck does this weird thing where every few chapters he’ll include a short chapter that’s just a long description about the land, or the process of buying and selling a car, or animals out in the brush. In the first 100 pages these are the chapters you want to fly through or skip altogether because you’re just getting to know the characters and it disrupts the story.
But after a while, these ambling detours – out of joint and just plopped in amongst the plot – became my favorite parts. Steinbeck describes whatever he’s painting in a 3rd person voice, and then all of a sudden he’ll switch to a first person speaker taking up a story or an anecdote related to the description, and then the narration will slip into 2nd person and then descriptive again. He plays with perspective and time and manages to convey injustice and outcry in the simple description of a used car lot. This book and the passages like these made me fall back in love with literature and want to dig through the classics mining every gorgeous phrase they had to offer me.
“One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from the splitting grows the thing you hate – ‘We lost our land.’ The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.”
At the same time that I was finishing the story of the Joads and their sad and sadder journey through California, the Zimmerman verdict came out. I was really shaken and couldn’t really put words to it. Then, a friend posted an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn:
“Good gracious, anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”
And I understood why the verdict and the world felt so wrong around me.
And it made me think about To Kill A Mockingbird, and when Scout is so sure of the fairness of the justice system, and how the system breaking and dismantling an idealistic faith is almost as painful as the verdict itself.
“What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.”
At the same time, I was finishing The Grapes of Wrath. This book, through passages of poetry and amazing colloquial dialogue and short stories woven into a longer narrative, at the same time screams in pain and beauty. Thinking back to the classics like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird and finishing The Grapes of Wrath at the same time reminded me that part of the way we can make sense of this world is through the art we create around it. Maybe it will push the world forward – The Grapes of Wrath did – or maybe it will help us feel less alone, or digest the toppling of our values in the face of injustice, or just let us find some beauty in the lives we’re experiencing. Maybe it will inspire us to create our own art that tells the stories of the world around us and even that is valuable too, I think.
A lot of messed up things happened this week. But I finished an amazing piece of literature that reminded me to care about the experiences of those so, so different from me, and also have faith that things can and do change for the better when people decide to care about each other— and that, I’m grateful for. So I’m dusting more classics off of the shelf in the hopes that I keep this productive reverence going, and I hope you do too. Here’s to all the stories that don’t get told and a hope that the ones that do make that fact a little bit better.
What’s next up on your reading list?