Since I’ve become more disciplined with my writing over the past few months, I have noticed that I don’t read as much anymore. This makes sense; my free hours are very limited and between writing, running, cooking (let’s call it what it is: making toast or rice and beans), and of course watching TV shows that aren’t just going to watch themselves, it had been nearly two months since I last finished a book.
This weekend I committed myself to making time to read. So, of course, late Sunday night, I did. I knocked out the final 30 pages or so of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which I’d been working on for a few months (alongside a few other half-read books still stacked on my nightstand. For years I’ve been calling myself a “huge Steinbeck fan” but really until last year I had only read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. I’d read both multiple times, and would definitely pick East of Eden as my favorite book, but I decided I probably shouldn’t continue self-identifying as a Steinbeck fan without reading more of his work. Since college it’s been difficult to motivate myself to read anything longer than 300 pages (hence the 1000-plus-page Infinite Jest currently collecting dust on my nightstand) but once I realized his other books are much, much shorter I suddenly became much more motivated to dig into the Steinbeck oeuvre. Of Mice and Men: so short I read it in two lunch breaks. Also, a powerful story with memorable characters and moral implications.
From there I moved on to The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel, mainly because I had found a beautiful clothbound vintage copy at Myopic Books. But unfortunately, as I said before, it took me a few months to get through it, and I can’t blame it on lack of quality reading time. I will always make time for a book I really want to read (hello, 24-hour Harry Potter read-a-thons). The pace really ebbed and flowed; some days the pages seemed to flip themselves and others I had to set goals to get myself to the end of a chapter. Perhaps it was the setting; Steinbeck’s New York never felt as fully realized as his California, and I found myself longing to return to his Salinas Valley.
The basic plot: Ethan Allen Hawley, a Long Island family man who comes from an elite family but has been “reduced” to work as a common grocer to support his wife and two children. He feels comfortable in his modest position but his wife and friends pressure him to be more, to want to be more, but he values his integrity and honesty and sees he would have to make compromises to get ahead in business and in life. Eventually he puts into motion a tenuous plan that, if successful, could reverse his fortunes.
By the end it feels like a grumpy old man bemoaning the loss of “the good old days,” and in a way that’s exactly what it is. In letters to friends, Steinbeck stated that his goal was to highlight the moral degeneration of American culture that he saw in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the novel won him a Pulitzer prize, the initial response was tepid, at least in America. But then after Watergate popular opinion swung back around and apparently is now considered among his best works. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) To me it felt overly obvious and moralistic, an attempt to spell out in the clearest possible terms what “the American dream” becomes when pursued blindly and without regard for others.
But even in its lack of subtlety it’s pointing toward something true and profound, a theme underlined by the fact that I read it in December and January. “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun [or son] of York”: these are the opening lines to Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s the kind of phrase the rolls across your tongue and glides out of your mouth: “the winter of our discontent.” It also gives voice to a feeling familiar to anyone who has lived or is living through a Chicago winter, that of quietly, restlessly waiting for something promised, something better, to arrive. That’s the thing about winter: we can’t wish it or will it away. We can’t take matters into our own hands and push the days forward with our own strength. Nothing good can came of that. We can only sit, and watch, and wait for the days to turn into months and the birds to return again.
And return they will. Today’s unseasonably warm weather blessedly reminded me of that. It’s too early, really, to start listening to my favorite song, “Here Comes the Sun,” but I found myself singing it anyway, like I always do when spring pokes its head back into view. So thanks, John Steinbeck, and global warming, and Jesus, for using a rainy day in January in Chicago to remind me that the sun is coming, and it really will be alright.