Solidarity amongst the Grapes of Wrath

I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.

Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:

The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.

Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’

‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’

What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:

Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.

There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –

This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.

– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:

This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.

Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):

I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:

This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”


News: a poor quality distraction

98329748_a947300152_bTwo related articles about news and distraction lately.

(1): America’s junk news binge epidemic:

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

(2): Addicted to distraction:

ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified… Instead of reading [books], I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

This is familiar territory to us here at arbitrary constant. It’s been nearly two years since I shared how I was feeling about news and media.

The crux of my reflections was this:

But even with spending so much time consuming [news and media] I was left none the wiser. I felt like I still didn’t understand what was going on. In my mind I couldn’t answer questions such as: why is what’s happening happening? How and why did we get here? Where are we going? Why are we going here and not there? What can the past tell us about why here may be better than there and what we might be able to learn about the options for getting there?

I had reached a dead end. Or, rather, I had so many choices of which direction to go in that I went nowhere.

The rest of the post explores what remains a fantastic essay by Ralf Dobelli, “Avoid News: towards a healthy news diet” (pdf), which:

provided me with some thoughts as to why I was feeling that way. His argument gives 15 reasons on why news is bad for us, including: news systematically misleads us, news limits our understanding, news massively increases cognitive errors and news inhibits thinking.

It’s an essay and way of thinking I can’t recommend highly enough.

How has it gone? To a large extent I’ve managed to alter my news consumption and instead switched to reading more books (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Libib Library). I occasionally find myself slipping back into old ways, though – especially when it comes to Twitter – and so am hoping to refocus a bit more in order to

pursue the things that interest me and my mind – giving myself chance and space to be curious, to think, to create and to be.

Reading these two articles was a timely reminder of this intent. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Reading meme

Via normblog and More Than Mind Games I’ve picked up this meme. If you’d like to fill it out, please do and leave a link to your blog in the comments.

Do you snack while reading? > I can’t say I do.

What is your favourite drink while reading? > A good cup of tea will always do the trick, particularly if I’m reading in the evening. In the day – and particularly if I’m out and about and on a break – then a coffee is my preferred drink.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? > The idea of writing in books per se doesn’t horrify me. I tend to underline passages, though, or fold down corners so that – when I look back over a book when I’ve finished it – I can find the passages / lines that made most impact. For a while I used to use those little post-it note markers to do the same job with less permanent damage, but kept forgetting to put them in my bag so eventually gave up on them.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? > Any variety of unofficial bookmark normally does the trick, typically train tickets, postcards or shreds of paper.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? > When I was younger it was overwhelmingly fiction. But now the vast majority of my reading material is non-fiction, mainly politics or some form of history.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? > I used to read until the end of a chapter, but since having a little baby boy, I’ll read until I get to where I get to!

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? > No – I’m not that demonstrative. I may tut or put the book down on my lap.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? > Without wishing to sound too poncey, I don’t come across too many unfamiliar words. If I do, the context generally means I can work them out. Otherwise, I may look them up later.

What are you currently reading? > I’m still trying to finish Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’ve just finished On Roads by Joe Moran and so am going to start A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin and The Revolt of the Pendulum by Clive James.

What is the last book you bought? > My birthday has just passed so I’ve bought loads recently. The two purchases I’m looking forward to the most are Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career Of British Democracy and The Presidents

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? > Late at night, lying on the sofa.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? > If this relates to fiction (see answer above) then I don’t really know. Stand-alones, I guess.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? > I find recommending books/authors a hazardous business, so I can’t say I do.

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)? > I used to think there was only one answer to this: alphabetically. But as my book collection has grown, the first main organisation involved a split by fiction / non-fiction. Fiction is now arranged alphabetically, with some size-based adjustments for aesthetic reasons. My non-fiction books are arranged by subject area, then by sub-topic area, then occasionally alphabetically (with some size-based adjustments as well).