Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Travels with Charley | John Steinbeck

When I purchased this novel in Prince Edward Island, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting. I had just finished “The Winter of Discontent” by Steinbeck and needed to something to read to round out my vacation (there was no anticipation of needing more than two books on a two week trip). So in the midst of my travels, while in Charlottetown, I saw a book entitled “Travels with Charley” by the same author, which was a fitting end to my first unchartered journey since 2004.

This work of non-fiction is filled with tons of accurate realizations about travelling (I can confirm the accuracy based on just experiencing them). The one I like the most is, “you don’t take a journey, it takes you.” You can do all the planning that you want, but as soon as you get in the car, you are not the one in control. The trip is quite clearly a living organism and you are at its whim. The sooner you accept that, the more delightful trip you’re going to have.

Another theme is that no two trips are the same. As the trip takes on a life, gives you feeling and evokes an experience, it will never be completely comparable to someone else’s experience. In addition, you could take the exact same trip twice, and it would be a completely different experience, especially after the elapsing of time. Part of the experience is in your head as well, the mind wanderings experienced when viewing miles and miles of countryside.

Steinbeck talks about concepts such as “you can never go home”, the majesty of the American landscape, the different points of view of the American people and the difficulty and absurdity of painting an entire country of people with the same brush. The journey is completely timeless, which is to say that it is still applicable today. The detailing of the deep south in the middle of the desegregation (which existed in the time of this journey, in 1962) seemed completely disjointed from present day. This book is a testament to Steinbeck’s writing, that he can make you feel as if the journey is happening in present time… but this event is completely out of the ordinary and presents very interesting perspectives on the difficulty of changing mindsets.

So far I have neglected to mention the identity of Charley, which is in fact, Steinbeck’s poodle. There is a lot of discussion on the complexity of the canine, which you will either really appreciate or get really bored of. A lot of Steinbeck’s philosophies on his pooch I would agree with, based on my limited experiences with dogs. However, Steinbeck does do a lot of projecting and playful bantering which is tiring at times.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this book. Steinbeck’s objective was to discover America. While reaching no definitive conclusions and stressing that his experiences were in no way a microcosm of life in America, the journey is very enjoyable to be on… the imagery of the countryside, the tales of characters and the mind of John Steinbeck.


"We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by the weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves." 175

"If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life." 192

"The ancients placed love and war in the hands of closely related gods. That was no accident. That, sir, was a profound knowledge of man." 233

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