Most people fall into two categories when it comes to their favorite book of all time. On the one side, there are those whose favorite book is one of the great cornerstones of literature that we all had to read in high school (A Catcher in the Rye, for example, or in areas with slightly more conservative mores, perhaps Deuteronomy). On the other side, there are the people whose favorite book is written by someone whose work may never be taught in a high school class but is special to them for some reason that seems to have been lost on the general public (maybe A Spell for Chameleon, or The Hunt for Red October).
I fall into a strange place in this whole debate, because my favorite book of all time was written by someone whose works include one or two of the aforementioned cornerstones, but it isn't one of them. It's a "B-Side" to the author's career, because even among the really literate people I know, only a very small percentage have read it. Right about now, I'm probably sounding like one of those self-righteous, elitist windbags that sit around coffee houses and roll their eyes at the thought of people not knowing every single track on every obscure recording of a given band. If you hadn't already guessed, that's not me... but I digress.
Travels With Charley is, in my opinion, the best book Steinbeck ever wrote. It has all of the same elements of style and setting that made his other works famous, but it hasn't been widely taught (and therefore, not widely read) mostly because it's non-fiction. Personally, I find that to be criminal, because having the ability to tell a compelling and deeply meaningful story about events that actually transpired is, in my mind, much more remarkable than events taking place in a universe controlled entirely by the author. I think that high school teachers' apparent aversion to non-fiction has had deleterious effects on good journalism in this country as well, but that's a topic for a rant at a later date.
The book is inspiring to me. It makes me want to go out and do so many things*. Mostly though, it reminds me of the stoic resolve that several generations of our ancestry had, and that we have, for the most part, lost touch with. Let's face it; yes, some of it may have just been image, but Steinbeck was a badass.
Anyway, all of you need to buy this book and read it at least twice. I'm actually going to have to buy it again myself, because my brother stole my dog-eared copy, the bastard.
You may have noticed that I haven't really told you anything about the story. In my mind, that's a book report, not a review. Most reviewers include a book report out of courtesy to their audience, but I'm not that nice, and this isn't even a real review. That's what Amazon is for.
* In a few years, the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's road trip is coming up, and I'm thinking that it would be a lot of fun to recreate it. All you need is a good camper truck, a small dog, and a few months off from work. ; )