Travels with Charley; in Search of America by John Steinbeck

This week we’re featuring some of our favorite Audio Books, just in time for planning your summer road trips. You can also click the Audio Books tag at the bottom of this post or at the top of the tag cloud on the right hand side of our blog’s home page for more great audio book suggestions!

What better book to consider taking on a road trip than this one? (Okay, besides  Kerouac’s On the Road.) I’ve enjoyed Steinbeck’s writing ever since I read Of Mice and Men back in High School. Last year, the classics book club that I was in read what many consider to be his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath. A nonfiction book club at another library had read Travels with Charley and almost everyone — including two friends — loved it, so I knew I’d have to read it. Not long ago I was able to listen to Ron McLarty’s wonderful narration of Steinbeck’s journey. I hadn’t heard McLarty before, but to me, his voice seemed to truly capture John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck and his French poodle, Charley, pack up a camper on the back of a truck and leave Steinbeck’s New York home just after Labor Day to head out to re-discover our country. His goals are to travel incognito, to only use his first name whenever possible, and to stick to the smaller roads and avoid the major highways as much as possible. He starts out heading East through New England and up into Maine before heading West across the Northern part of the country. He eventually makes a loop around the country, including the West coast and the deep South before venturing back up to his home in New York several months later. The National Steinbeck Center in his hometown of Salinas, California has a large map of his travels on display.

There has been a bit of controversy in recent years since people have discovered that Steinbeck did not write a completely accurate diary of his travels. He fudged the timeline about when he was in each location and how long  the various parts of the trip took. He mentions his wife meeting him in a hotel at a couple points along the journey, when she was with him much more of the trip than he indicated. Some of the people he meets (waitresses, policemen, mechanics) are composites of people he met and his own imagination.  But, in recent years we have also heard of many other somewhat fictionalized memoirs, see: James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, and  David Sedaris.

Personally, it doesn’t bother me that a great American novelist like John Steinbeck probably fictionalized large parts of his travel memoir about America. He’s a story teller, and he’s telling us a fantastic story of a man and his dog meeting the everyday people throughout our country at a time in our history which is both nostalgic and embarrassing to look back upon.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the author laments the disappearance of the city or town in favor of sprawl, as well as the homogenization of the country. Imagine how much more sprawl has occurred and how much more homogenous America is now, fifty years later.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

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