Why I love John Steinbeck

I remember that I once read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” on New Year’s Day.  Now, anyone who has read this book would think, “Why would you want to start your year off in such a depressing way?”  And yet something about this author has always inspired me in the way some opera buffs are moved to tears by a beautiful aria.

I offer up two excerpts of Steinbeck’s writing as examples of his gifts as a writer.  This first is the dedication to “East of Eden”, and I’ve thought of it often, anytime I find myself looking for a vehicle to carry the thoughts I’ve collected in this lifetime:

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What kind of things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts- the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

JOHN

Second, one of the most beautiful passages from another favorite, “The Winter of Our Discontent”, which is among the best books I’ve read:

My wife, my Mary, goes to her sleep the way you would close the door of a closet. So many times I have watched her with envy. Her lovely body squirms a moment as though she fitted herself into a cocoon. She sighs once and at the end of it her eyes close and her lips, untroubled, fall into that wise and remote smile of the ancient Greek gods. She smiles all night in her sleep, her breath purrs in her throat, not a snore, a kitten’s purr. For a moment her temperature leaps up so that I can feel the glow of it beside me in the bed, then drops and she has gone away. I don’t know where. She says she does not dream. She must, of course. That simply means her dreams do not trouble her, or trouble her so much that she forgets them before awakening. She loves to sleep and sleep welcomes her. I wish it were so with me. I fight off sleep, at the same time craving it.

I have thought the difference might be that my Mary knows she will live forever, that she will step from the living into another life as easily as she slips from sleep to wakefulness. She knows this with her whole body, so completely that she does not think of it any more than she thinks to breathe. Thus she has time to sleep, time to rest, time to cease to exist for a little.

Whenever I feel a little closed in, when I need to see my experience reflected in the experiences of my fellow humans, I know I can reach for another book by John Steinbeck.

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