It's always a gift to read a book that has staying power. Such a volume is easily identified: You recall its passages at telling moments, or can't resist pulling it off the shelf as you pass by intent on what suddenly becomes a not-so-important task.
John Steinbeck, whose 100th birthday is being marked around the United States, (see story, page 13) often comes to mind when I think of such tomes. I had read and liked "Of Mice and Men" in eighth grade. But it was when my son was assigned "East of Eden" for ninth-grade summer reading that Steinbeck took on new stature.
I read the book alongside Matt, and began to irritate him no end as I asked if he were at such-and-such a point yet; or didn't he think (as I read out loud) that this description was astonishing? Matt liked the book enough; I, on the other hand, couldn't put it down.
More recently, my eighth-grade daughter got in on the act as we cracked open "Travels with Charley," published in 1962. We're reading it together, out loud. At first, I think she tolerated this as payback for getting a new outfit. But soon she began to laugh at Steinbeck's descriptions of his "French gentleman poodle," Charley, and his exchanges with laconic strangers on a journey inspired by the fact that he "had not felt the country for twenty-five years."
Wandering America with Steinbeck makes it easy to understand why his works are still so prevalent in high schools. My daughter says she just likes the way he describes things. In the case of "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck speaks to the "practical bum" in all of us. He reminds us that the planning and taking of a journey has long captivated people: "I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it."