Book Recommendation: Travels with Charley in Search of America

Steinbeck’s ability to create a sense of place and tell an entertaining story has always impressed me. This nonfiction account of his cross-country road trip in 1960 did not disappoint in that respect. It also gave me a new perspective of Steinbeck as a man and of the era during which he lived. 

He was 58 when he and his dog, Charley, set out in a modern, fully-stocked camper truck for a months’ long journey. Steinbeck’s goal was to rediscover the America and the people he’d spent decades portraying in his novels. He took the trip in late fall and early winter, specifically to avoid tourists and engage in conversation with the average woman and man. His description of driving isolated back-roads and eating in small-town diners, of laundering clothes on the road and cooking beans on a camp stove were transporting and evocative. It alternated between poignant and funny.

Like many of Steinbeck’s works, Travels with Charley in Search of America, provided an intimate view and insightful interpretation of human nature.

Here’s one example. Midway through their travels, Charley became ill and Steinbeck took him to the nearest veterinarian. The author quickly assessed the doctor was likely an alcoholic with a serious hangover. When the vet touched the dog with “his unsteady, inept hand,” Steinbeck wrote, “I saw the look of veiled contempt in Charley’s eyes. He knew about the man, I thought, and perhaps the doctor knew he knew. And maybe that was the man’s trouble. It would be very painful to know that your patients had no faith in you.”

Though Steinbeck was unhappy with the doctor’s gruff bedside manner in the moment, he later reflected on the experience with some empathy, even a touch of compassion. “It wasn’t that this veterinary didn’t like animals. I think he didn’t like himself, and when that is so the subject usually must find an area for dislike outside himself. Else he would have to admit his self-contempt.”

This travelogue also gave me insight about Steinbeck himself and of the era during which he lived. Critical reviewers of the time lauded his searing interpretation of our nation’s shortcomings in “political apathy, environmental degradation, and strident racism.” Yet, reading many passages through today’s lens, I was struck by the irony of such praise and by a renewed sense of pride in how far we have come the past 50 years.

Steinbeck believed in racial equality. He railed against segregation. His words sang with a sincerity I believed. At the same time, some of his expressions made me wince when measuring them against today’s standards of racism.

With regard to the environment, Steinbeck’s prose reflected a man who loved nature and wild places, who championed the preservation of forests and wildlife. Indeed, he was. On the other hand, he viewed those places through the narrow view of a mid-20th century outdoorsman. He didn’t see them as ecosystems vital to mankind’s survival, but rather as playgrounds vital to man’s amusement.

In one passage, he extolled “modern designs for easy living” that made his forays into nature more convenient and enjoyable. “On my boat I had discovered aluminum, disposable cooking utensils, frying pans and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard.” In another passage, he described camping in the Mohave Desert and setting two coyotes in his rifle sights. “Coyotes are vermin. They steal chickens. They must be killed. They are the enemy,” he wrote. It broke my heart, even though I know that was common, accepted belief in his day.

This memoir smashed the rose-colored glasses through which I viewed my literary hero. That doesn’t mean I no longer admire Steinbeck’s writing and storytelling talents. In fact, it may have deepened my appreciation of his work now that I have a deeper understanding for the real-life man behind the author persona. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck, or if you’re interested in learning more about life in 1960s America, this is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

* If you decide to purchase Travels with Charley using the button above, a portion of the sale will support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Nonfiction Book for a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”

Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.

He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.

Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty.  He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.

I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.

“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”

This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”

No wonder we’re all so stressed out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

Well said.

Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:

  • Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
  • In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…

“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreview

  • Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.