Ian McMillan: Magic of literature

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As I write this, my grandson Thomas is slowly ploughing his way through the entire Harry Potter canon (or is it an oeuvre? I always get the two mixed up); he sits on the settee with a book the size of a breeze block and turns the pages energetically in a room that otherwise brims with silence. I know just how he feels: it’s great to be on a journey through one author’s work, knowing that although you’ve read a few books by them, there are still quite a few more to go and, if they’re still alive and still productive, there will be new books to savour for years to come.

I’m a bit of a completist too, when it comes to writers; I like the row of books on the shelf in a uniform edition, the author’s name picked out in bold, and the title in a different but still striking font.

I’m a bit of a completist too, when it comes to writers; I like the row of books on the shelf in a uniform edition, the author’s name picked out in bold, and the title in a different but still striking font.

When I was a bit older than my grandson is now, I came across the work of the great American writer John Steinbeck one Sunday afternoon when I was lolling on the settee after dinner watching television. On BBC2 that afternoon they were showing the film of Steinbeck’s magnificent novel The Grapes of Wrath, the epic tale of the Joad family making their way, in brilliant and lucent black-and-white cinematography, across the USA from the dust bowls of Oklahoma to the promised land of California. I was mesmerised and moved by the film, and amazed and delighted to note that it was based on a book by a writer I’d never heard of, so on Monday after school I went to Darfield library and, under Mrs Dove’s watchful eye, found a whole shelf of Steinbecks with The Grapes of Wrath in the middle. I borrowed it and, like my grandson with Harry Potter, made my way through it from beginning to end; I didn’t understand some of it, it’s true, but in the end I was seduced by the music of the language and I asked for a hardbacked copy of the book for Christmas.

I don’t think all that many people read John Steinbeck now, which is a shame; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and was often placed in the spotlight when films were made of his books, which happened with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, the movie of which starred James Dean, but otherwise he remained a bit of a shadowy figure with lots of half-forgotten and little-read books to his name. I made my way through all of his titles, including awkwardly symbolic works like The Wayward Bus, where the bus becomes a metaphor for humanity, and the beautiful Travels With Charley, about the elderly Steinbeck trying to regain his writing mojo by travelling around the US in a campervan.

Writing this has made me want to delve into Steinbeck again, starting with the splendid Of Mice And Men and including tiny gems like Cannery Row and The Moon Is Down. Move up the settee a bit, Thomas: grandad’s here with a bagful of Steinbecks!