The first author I truly truly loved was John Steinbeck.
I think at first I wanted to love Steinbeck to be different. While all my classmates were struggling through The Grapes of Wrath, hating on the interchapters, I was determined to love the crap out of an unpopular book.
Yet somehow, I played a trick on myself. By wanting to love The Grapes of Wrath, I ended up diving deeper and deeper into the story. I savored every nuance. Every paragraph long sentence. Every string of endless descriptors. I slowly fell in love.
It might sound like I’m being a bit facetious, but I truly did love everything about Steinbeck.
I loved how committed he was to immersing his reader in the story. With each detail and description I felt as though I could imagine every detail and moment inside the story. I got lost in the narrative so thoroughly I would lose track of time.
Steinbeck is just such a thoroughly American author. Much like my love Larry McMurtry, Steinbeck writes almost exclusively about the American west. While McMurtry focuses his stories on cowboys in the west, Steinbeck writes about a California that barely exists anymore.
The sleepy, dusty, small town/homestead life just no longer exists in the places Steinbeck describes – the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Range just isn’t the same anymore. It’s fun to imagine what that part of the country was like when it was full of open spaces and adventurers, rather than tech entrepreneurs and fitness junkies.
At the same time, Steinbeck picks up different elements in different novels and stories which make each picture of Americana distinct.
Some of the most popular (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men) come from Steinbeck’s famous dust bowl fiction – all written in the 1930s and set in the Great Depression. But my favorites are some of Steinbeck’s later works which were informed by his time as a war correspondent – including The Moon is Down about WW2 Resistance fighters, and Once There Was A War.
Of course, I pretty much love all Steinbeck, but a beginner may want a taste of something a bit more fun – try out To a God Unknown – it’s homesteading with pagan land worship thrown in, and it’s amazing. Or you could go for The Winter of Our Discontent and consider Steinbeck’s perspective on the moral decline of America.
If you want to go big though – and you’ve already read The Grapes of Wrath, I would point you directly to East of Eden. It’s Steinbeck’s longest, and a beast to get through, but it’s so amazing. East of Eden takes on the nature of good an evil, following families in the Salinas Valley through multiple generations and retelling biblical stories with a healthy dose of Americana.
Whichever you choose, take your time. Steinbeck is not designed to be plowed through. Savor the description and enjoy it.