Monday, April 30, 2012

I'll Be Everywhere

     One of the reasons I live in Portland, Oregon is that this city has excellent book stores.  Just spending an hour in a bookstore is something I hope I'll be able to do for the duration.  In our stellar bookstore, Powell's, there are always good bargains, lots of used books along with the latest offerings, all kinds of journals, magazines, book lights, and one of my favorite features: Staff Recommendations.  I love to see what the employees there are reading and the books they deem worthy of recognition.  I trust them.
Powell's has readings by authors, a cafe, a knowledgeable staff, and thousands and thousands of ways to kill an hour or two.  For those most patient, the rewards can be huge.  $30. books reduced to $7.95 if you have a year or two to spare.
     Like newspapers, I know that book stores are on their way out.  Just this morning I heard that Barnes and Noble and Microsoft signed a deal to produce E-textbooks.  Immediately I thought of that stretch on Bancroft Way across from UC Berkeley with all the used textbook stores.  I'm sure one day soon they'll all be gone.  Until that day, like many people, I'll enjoy just wandering around a bookstore.

     The real highlight of today's wandering came when I found a book with a very provocative title.  It was a rather thick little rectangle of a book that dealt with the most important books in American literature and the characters and events they encompass.  Many of the titles chosen were predictable.  Of course Jay Gatsby makes the characters list.  Glancing through the fine print of the index just to get a feel for the contents, I noticed The Grapes of Wrath listed on a couple of pages.  I read the entry.  The author mentioned that this Steinbeck classic was a significant event in the literary history of this country because it recognized the plight of the disaffected migrants during the Great Depression, and also raised questions about deep American values like land, materialism, social justice, and equality.  The author went on to explain that many of the issues/conflicts in the novel are with us today as a disaffected 99% rails against the 1% that is growing wealthier and more alienated every day.  For a minute there I was reminded of a little speech I gave to an 11th grade class urging them to read this novel.  The context involved a choice that had to be made close to the end of the school year.  The class had been with a student teacher who did a fine job, but was still adjusting to the pacing required to keep things moving.  We knew the kids in the class would have to put in extra time to complete the reading in a timely manner, so I gave them a choice of reading Grapes, or another Steinbeck novel, In Dubious Battle, written around the same time.  Now some kids read both, most read one, and a few, as always read most or part of one.  But that day, as I tried to convince them that Grapes was one of the most important books of the last century and would perhaps serve them well as they entered college the following year,
I was a bit more animated than usual.  A doctoral candidate from UC was in the room observing that day and I guess I must have been in fine form.  Months later when I read the dissertation, my comments to the class were referenced and I was taken down a few pegs about the importance I placed on a book that the researcher, "hadn't read until this year."  She couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about, why was this book so special.  She, like many thought it was depressing.
Today when I read the entry for The Grapes of Wrath in this anthology of most significant books I felt a bit of vindication.  The fact that so many of the issues are still with us didn't feel quite so good. But I'm glad I delivered my thoughts from the heart.  In the end, it's what most students will remember.

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