The Five Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read: #3: The Grapes of Wrath

It has been said that by reading an author you can discover the types of books sitting on his or her shelf. The books we read, especially those from teenage and young adulthood, shape our definition of what a great story is and what qualities make those stories. Choosing just five books for my list of greats has been a challenge. After making my choices and beginning to write about them, it dawned on me how influential each has been to my work. Frankenstein has, albeit subconsciously, inspired Grimosse, the golem character in Age of Aenya. Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, has gone a long way to shape and inspire not only my writing but the way in which I relate to others, especially people of differing cultures and social strata. The image of the noble farmer and his family, struggling against starvation, has haunted me since high school. It has also served as inspiration for the agrarian and impoverished Ilmar, who feature more prominently in my revised novel than in Dark Age of Enya. 

The Grapes of Wrath was required reading for my 11th grade AP English. Many students elected for the Cliff’s Notes “version” and I can honestly say that I pity them for the experience they could have had. Steinbeck’s book takes place during the Great Depression and follows an Oklahoma family displaced after the infamous Dust Bowl famine which wiped out acres of crops and rendered thousands homeless. In these current economic times, Steinbeck’s masterpiece is more relevant and more urgent; watching CNN or reading the newspaper, all you seem to hear is statistics regarding unemployment, foreclosure and homelessness. But these numbers are utterly soulless, devoid of any humanity, incapable of giving these tragedies dimension or meaning. If someone has not experienced the uncertainty, guilt, fear and despair that comes with homelessness and extreme poverty, they cannot know it, and no newspaper article can do it justice. Truly great art, on the other hand, permits our perspectives to be shared with other human beings—and that is precisely what The Grapes of Wrath so effortlessly achieves, bringing the reader as close, emotionally, to that state of impoverishment. I have never been homeless, but nothing short of losing my home, I believe, could help me to understand what that means better than The Grapes of Wrath. As you follow the characters in Steinbeck’s book, you find yourself unwillingly part of the family, raging as they rage, weeping as they weep, despairing as they despair. And yet, despite the enormity of their suffering, The Grapes of Wrath never discourages the reader. Every page is suffused with hope for a better future. Steinbeck manages this feat by creating characters easy to feel compassion for; they are proud, as familiar as friends, and their struggle is as noble as any quest in any adventure. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, its emotional impact resonated with me for days, and my view on life was changed forever.

Years later, I came to realize the very charged political and social commentary that is Steinbeck’s book, and it would be dismissive to ignore the novel’s socialist leanings; but in every movement there are seeds of truth that cannot be ignored. I am not a socialist, but I realize there are inherent failures that all capitalist systems must face. While being familiar with The Grapes of Wrath need not make one a socialist, it no doubt serves as a reminder that inequalities exist throughout the world, and that often, even the most honest and hardworking among us—as we are now seeing daily in the newspapers—can befall the very worst.

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