Book Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Sometimes it strikes me how readable the classics are. I’ve always found the works of Hemingway exceedingly accessible. Of course, I find the works of William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson accessible, and often funny. Regardless, I’ve recently been on a Steinbeck kick since I picked up a matching set of some of his books in nice Collier hardback editions (although I must include the obligatory Amazon link to a paperback edition). I’ve read Cup of Gold and The Winter of Our Discontent and enjoyed both. So when I was looking for a more classical turn from the sci-fi on my shelves, I went back to this collection of Steinbeck novels (for which I paid $1 each at an estate sale–good deal at those estate sales). And I selected Of Mice and Men.

I’d never read it before. I realize many of you read it in high school, but somehow I dodged it in high school and in my numerous college classes. Yeah, I got an English degree, but before you use this single anecdote to thrash English programs and modern education today, remember I chose to read this of my own accord at 31. On the other hand, such enlightenment probably is a statistically insignificant minority of college graduates, so feel free to thrash academia anyway. I do.

So, about the accessibility of this book. It’s written in modern English, even modern American, so it requires no footnoting. And unlike modern “classics,” old time classics, part of the canon disparaged by peers of mine in English programs who never evolved beyond English majors–that is, they never grew up and got jobs outside of the English department–some of these books dealt with weightier matters than nihilistic couplings of college professors or the emotional melodramas favored by Oprah. No, life and death were on the line.

The edition I have clocks in at 186 pages, but the margins are wider than the term paper from a twelfth-grade wrestling stand-out, so it’s a quick read. Not Old Man and the Sea quick, but I went through it in a couple days. Another good selection if you want to impress your book club with your classical educational leanings but don’t want to spend a lot of time on it.

Of Mice and Men tells of two traveling farm workers, Lennie and George, who find work at a ranch after getting in some trouble in Weed and leaving in a hurry. They’re working to earn enough to buy their own land, but of course they encounter obstacles, or mainly an obstacle, and then there’s a surprising ending where George has to defuse a nuclear bomb while Lennie holds off a number of Columbian revolutionaries with a half-full revolver and a bottle of whiskey….

Well, not really. It’s not that bang-and-flash, but the book delves into the nature of friendship and man’s obligations to right and wrong better than most blockbuster thrillers or buddy cop movies do. Plus, it makes you sound smart to allude to a John Steinbeck novel, which is why I do so frequently. Maybe it won’t make you sound smart. Maybe it only makes me sound like I’ve read only one Steinbeck novel, once, in high school. But I am a slightly better person for it and I’m not angry at the writer for wasting my time. Does that count as a rousing endorsement? You bet.

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