Book 19, a book about travel, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states” (Steinbeck 71).
I am one of those people for whom the travel bug does not need to bite very hard before I’m ready to pack my bags and hit the road. I have rarely lived in the same place longer than 2-3 years in my adult life, so I enjoy reading about travel and daydreaming about all the trips I would love to take if time and money permitted. It’s been about four years since my last trip, so at this point, I am frothing at the mouth for some travel adventures. Especially now that Spring is upon us, I am feeling driven by an urge to get out and explore. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is perfect to scratch that itch.
I knew that I loved Steinbeck’s fiction (that’s a given), but I had no idea how in love I would be with this non-fiction travelogue written after revisiting the United States in his sixties. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I’m putting in my top ten favorites. I’m not sure if it’s the travelling, Steinbeck’s gentleman Poodle companion Charley, the beautiful way Steinbeck has of capturing the American landscape in his prose, or his humor and wit throughout his travels. It all adds up to equal an inspiring, witty, charming travelogue. I found myself highlighting so many lines. Here are a few of my favorites:
“I took one companion on my journey—an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley” (Steinbeck 8).
“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless” (Steinbeck 11).
“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading—and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading” (Steinbeck 11).
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us” (Steinbeck 4).
“I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy” (37)
“One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward” (161)
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always” (186)
I love the relationship between John and Charley. Anyone who has ever had a super tight relationship with their pet will love the moments where he describes Charley’s mannerisms and behavior on the road. I also enjoyed the conversations and idiosyncrasies he encounters while travelling throughout various states. Everyone will roll their eyes at the weird, petty bureaucracies he experiences as we have ALL been there. Sometimes he handles them with grace, other times he breaks down at the sheer stupidity of what he’s asked to do, both of which are hilarious to read. I loved the moments in which he transcends the barrier of being a stranger to engage in genuine conversations with the folks he meets along the road. I despaired during the moments where he witnesses protests against de-segregation in the South and the ugliness he met there in the small-minded people. I felt the same breaking down and disgust of humanity at those low points that he felt. Yet he finds so much good out there, too.
As Steinbeck says himself, this isn’t meant to be a representative of ALL experiences on a journey across the country. Every journey is unique, and this is merely the one he had at this particular moment in time. Even if it can’t stand fall every journey, or as a representative of all the people in the USA, it still holds value in the highs and lows, the beauty and the ugliness it uncovered along the way. It still highlights the diversity of our great country and exposes the miracle that despite our seeming differences, we are all really more alike than we are different. We are united in being Americans and in that shared identity.
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley. Bantam, 1968.