I’ve immersed myself in the works of John Steinbeck the past several days and so this scene from The Grapes of Wrath keeps coming to mind. A poor farmer stands in the middle of his field with a rifle pointed up at a man on a tractor who has orders to raze the farmhouse. The driver, a neighbor, looks down and tries to reason with the farmer, explaining that he’s following orders, that if the farmer shoots him, the bank will hire someone else to do the razing. They go back and forth in a tragic comic manner, the driver trying to explain the nuances of bankruptcy and debt to this farmer who knows only his hands and toil. The crisis has spiraled so far out of control that it’s nearly impossible to attach blame to a single source. The simple farmer, in exasperation, finally asks, Well, who do I shoot then?

Before I get to why this scene resonates with me lately, I want to add that I’d forgotten how funny Steinbeck can be. I remember the philosophical underpinnings in his work and how this is balanced by deep compassion, but I forgot the wry humor. He’s closer to Twain than to Hemingway. I’m almost done with
Travels with Charley, which is not a hefty book, but it has taken me a while to work through it because it’s packed with wisdom and beauty on every page. I don’t want it to end. Last week, I visited the redwoods he describes in California, and this week I get to read Steinbeck’s take on them.

While on vacation, I learned that Borders will soon be closing its doors, and I find myself becoming more and more troubled, worried, angry, despondent over the state of the world of books these days. I don’t know if I’d call my reaction mourning, but it sure feels something like that. I hate the signs in the store windows announcing the closure, the harried pace of customers (myself included) looking for deals, the dwindling selections, the shelves becoming more and more bare on each visit, the desolation, the sinking feeling that this space will probably be occupied soon by less magical wares such as linens and towels.

Who
do we blame for this demise? That’s what I want to know. I buy my fair share of books each year, which is simply my grown-up version of marching to the comic book store each Thursday as I did as a boy to check out the latest releases. Maybe that’s where the mourning arises; the closing of a book store sparks a primal fear of peeking inside a darkened vault of treasures only to find it empty. Like waking up from a good dream that you never want to end.

Let’s start with blaming Amazon. This seems logical to me. I’ve ordered a few books online, but only a few. And here’s where the justification seeps in.
I already spend too much money at bookstores, online is cheaper, finding a package on my doorstop holds a little thrill. But as I said, I’ve avoided ordering online for the most part, and my conscience is clear in this respect.

The next culprits that come to mind are the people and institutions responsible for this rotten economy, not just the bankers but the policy makers who have allowed and still allow the greed to fester.

Blame technology? With everyone staring at iPads and cocooned with iPods, it’s no wonder that bookstores struggle for their piece of the pie.

Years ago everyone blamed TV for illiteracy or whatever ills plagued society. Not too many people get riled up much about TV.

I guess what I ultimately worry about is that books themselves will become devalued if the books are not showcased in stores that thrive and that employ people who love and know about books. Independent bookstores are usually better equipped to ensure the latter, and while the closing of any bookstore is sad, I hope one unintended consequence is that these independent stores reap some of the business lost at Borders. It would be a shame if everyone now turned to their computers rather than seek out a neighborhood shop.

I feel a little lost.

Any thoughts? 
 
 
Picture
I just returned from a short trip to Steinbeck country, Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Fabric street signs etched with his portrait fluttered atop light poles, and there was a sizable bust of Steinbeck along the main stretch on which now houses shops. But I couldn’t find a single bookstore along that stretch, nor could I find a sampling of any of his work in any of the shops. Plenty of tee shirts and souvenir mugs and trash though. I did finally find a bookstore a mile away and picked up Cannery Row and Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Here’s the mystery. I’ve always loved TheGrapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men but never sought out much else of his work, and I’m not sure why. Cannery Row is more a compendium of character sketches than a novel, but the sketches are wonderfully evocative and often hilarious. Travels with Charley is also funny at times but mostly intimate and full of wonder. He and his pet poodle set out to explore America in a camper in 1960. The reader gets a sense not only of the times but of the regional sensibilities, which I suspect haven’t changed that much—though Steinbeck even back then laments the loss of these local pockets.

The good news is that Steinbeck wrote many books, which I’m eager to tackle.

While walking along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, I came across homeless men holding signs and asking for money. One tattered sign, help up by not a homeless person but by an older teen who could been a character in Cannery Row: “Spare change for weed.” 
 

Goodwill

07/19/2011

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I don't know if you've discovered this, but Goodwill sells used books. I thoroughly enjoyed Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken, so I drove to my local Goodwill and sure enough found her first book, Seabiscuit, in hardcover for a buck-seventy-nine. I also found a book of essays by one of my favorite writers and heroes, Harry Mark Petrakis. His novel, A Dream of Kings, is a classic that everyone should read.
 
 
Not much to report. Feeling a little run-down after teaching three weeks of summer school. As a result, I’ve been tackling shorter works. It’s always worth going back to the stories of Ray Bradbury, though I did come across a few that felt a little forced. And I’ve been dipping into Alice Munro short stories, which always seem bigger than the pages they span. Next up: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, about the Dust Bowl in America during the 30s. How’s this for perspective? He describes a single day, April 14, 1935. “The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon.”

Now summer can finally begin.