Required Reading

photo (3)Despite being an enthusiastic young reader and an English major in college, I managed to miss a number of literary classics along the way. I’m pretty sure The Grapes of Wrath was an option on the summer reading list in 9th or 10th grade, but I probably took a look at the page count (in the last few days of summer vacation) and went with something shorter. I was a good student, but an even better procrastinator.

So, nearly 20 years later (eek) I dusted off a second hand copy of The Essential Steinbeck and cracked it open to Grapes of Wrath and quickly found myself affected in a way I never expected.

I knew the basic premise (depression era migrant workers venture west after losing their Oklahoma farm). And my favorite books are the kind capable of emotional destruction – The Art of Fielding, One Day, The Fault in Our Stars, to name a few. But I expected to read TGOW from a literary and emotional distance, observing characters’ struggles and simply recognizing the historical relevance.

But, this book destroyed me with its relevance to what is happening today.

The story of the Joad family and their desperate search for work – any work – is not unlike the plight of our current population of working poor people who earn unlivable wages performing jobs that no one else wants.

In TGOW, the Farmers’ Association demands that landowners reduce fruit pickers’ pay in order to increase profit. Those in power prosper while the people who harvest food for them starve. Sound familiar?


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In my opinion, there’s a better place for TGOW than a high school reading list. If I could, I’d make it required reading for every politician who opposes raising the minimum wage. I’d make every one of them copy this passage and read it out loud until they felt ashamed of themselves.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

–        John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Question: What other high school reading list classics are still (for better or for worse) relevant today?

8 thoughts on “Required Reading

  1. Great post, Jenessa! And you’re right, it’s unfortunate just how relevant Steinbeck’s writing continues to be today. I recently heard a great debate about this on npr ( and thought that although the side arguing for the abolishment of the minimum wage had a more cogent argument than I had heard previously, the side arguing against abolishing the law had a lot more of a sensible and realistic perspective. (The audience agreed.) Worth a listen if you or your readers are interested.

  2. Absolutely. In fact, the real conversation shouldn’t be about abolishing or not abolishing the minimum wage but about the fact that people can’t survive (pay rent, buy food, etc.) on their minimum wage earnings. And I couldn’t care less if someone has a one parent or two parent household; a person working full-time, earning minimum wage at a fast food restaurant still deserves the same dignity as you and I. Of course, companies don’t want to pay someone more if they can get away with paying less. It’s not the corporation’s goal to “care.” Their goal is to make money; such is the system. So that’s their interest, but our interest needs to be different. It needs to be focused on the human–the actual individual working, struggling–not the dollar signs. We’re not talking about handouts here; we’re talking about ensuring basic human dignity for those who work jobs some of us are lucky enough to have been able to avoid. These are students, mothers, fathers, grandparents, people who make “too much” to qualify for government assistance, but too little to survive. We need to stop thinking about this in the abstract and recognize the very real people at the center of the “debate.” That’s what Steinbeck was able to capture so beautifully. Thanks for reminding me.

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