Book of the Week: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

It is no secret that I am not a Steinbeck fan. My earliest introduction to his work came in the sixth grade when Mrs. Rowley assigned us to read The Red Pony. At the time, I was already a fan of Edgar Allen Poe and reading everything I could find by Charles Dickens. Surely someone like Steinbeck would interest me, right?

Wrong. Oh, I was so very wrong. I didn’t care for The Red Pony. My mother (and sister) suggested I try Of Mice and Men, which I did like, but when I had to read The Grapes of Wrath a few years later, I realized that I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spoon than read it. I didn’t care that it won a Pulitzer. It was dry and dull and so incredibly boring.

Several weeks ago, I explained this to a woman in my writing group, and she asked if I had read Travels with Charley.

“No,” I answered truthfully. “I’d heard of it. Isn’t that the one that earned him the Nobel Prize?”

“Yes, I think so. It’s my favorite book of his. I have two copies of it. You can borrow one, if you’d like.”

And the following week, she slid Travels with Charley across the table to me.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I approached Travels with Charley with an open mind. I’m much older than I was in high school, I reasoned, so I was certain it would hold my attention. After all, I’d read War and Peace and loved it. This was a 277-page memoir. How bad could it be?

Travels with Charley was a slow read. And in truth, I think it was designed to be. By Steinbeck’s own admission, Travels with Charley is a study of America at the end of 1960. It starts off well and has occasional moments that held my interest peppered throughout, but for the most part, I don’t know that it’s a book I would care to reread. His descriptions of the countryside and of the handful of people he writes of encountering are, of course, beautifully written, but he there were so many instances where it seemed he rambled more than I would have liked. I dozed off reading it more than a handful of times, and there were pages I had to reread because I got to the end of the page without knowing what it was I’d just read. But overall, my general feeling following Steinbeck on this cross-country journey seems to mirror the sentiments he expresses at the end of the book: general relief that the journey is over.

I don’t dare dismiss Travels with Charley outright, and not just because it earned the man a Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s an important literary work because it captures sentiments held so strongly in this country in the early ’60s. There were a number of thought-provoking passages that, if I was reading my own copy or reading it off my Kindle, I would have highlighted. And the fact that I read it slowly allowed for additional introspection.

It’s the fact that I felt compelled to discuss ideas within its pages that results in my rating of 3 stars out of 5. I liked it but wouldn’t necessarily pick it up for another read.

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