John Steinbeck · reading

The Log from the Sea of Cortez. #1951 club

Still I struggle both with reading and writing.

During the previous month I read Barbery and Shakespeare, but without much success or satisfaction. Or joy, for that matter… It’s an expected effect of a lack of interest.

My feelings towards this state of affairs oscillate between acceptance and concern. On one hand, I embrace it as something normal, natural. Why should it not be? There are periods when one’s interest in reading (literature) drops, when the appeal of other interests is decidedly stronger. The brain needs variety, seeks and prefers a different kind of engagement every once in a while. It’s as simple as that… On the other hand, there is a tendency to think about this as of a problem, to sit and ponder the gravity of the reasons for the detachment, to try to come up with a solution/a plan to get back to the ”desired” state of mind as soon as possible…

I am more inclined towards the first line of reasoning. It’s more sensible as well as healthier.

Also, the reasons for the ”repairment” are all completely wrong and ridiculous: a) a faint wish to feel a strong desire to read, b) a thought that I should be reading because there are so many books and so little time, c) a sense of fear that, if I don’t push myself into reading, if I fail to keep the continuity (no matter the quality), I might never want to get back to reading literature again.

What rubbish! That I even have to reason against these ”reasons” is annoying enough. There are better things to occupy my mind with, better things to spend my time and energy on.

Working in the garden, for example.. observing the growth of its flora and the busyness of its fauna, getting better acquainted with the species living in my immediate surroundings (just the other day, for the first time in my life, I saw a snail chewing), learning and reading about nature in general…

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this post – The 1951 club, hosted by Karen and Simon.

My intention was to read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us for the occasion, but in the end, I opted not to. After a quick comparative check of the structure and style of both of these books, Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez seemed to be a better option. I thought it could be more accessible as it’s offering more variety in themes without being too demanding in terms of presence of mind and concentration it requires.

The Log combines marine biology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, and the best way to read it is one entry at a time (one per an afternoon would perhaps be ideal) since they give plenty food for thought.

It’s all seamlessly woven in together: collecting reports, observations about animals, accounts of the lives of the small coastal towns in the Gulf, adventures with the Mexicans, anecdotes from the life on the boat, musings on different topics (scientists, technology, sea monsters, teleological vs. non-teleological way of thinking, mutation, cannibalism, to name some).

The portraits and sketches of crew members were amongst the most enjoyable parts of the book. The good humor with which Steinbeck brought their personalities to light is infectious. Actually, good humor and wit are dominant characteristics of the narrative as a whole. Steinbeck is very observant, a master painter.

I was surprised to learn that Steinbeck’s wife Carol was a part of the crew. Not a single trace of her can be found on the pages. Similarly, Steinbeck’s or Ricketts’ names are nowhere mentioned. The book is written in first person plural so, most of the time a person is referred to as ”one of us” I guess it wouldn’t be wrong to suppose that the person in question is either Ricketts or Steinbeck… A strikingly beautiful eulogy at the end of the book compensates for Ricketts’ absence from the narrative.

There is a delightful and hilariously funny episode featuring the Sally Lightfoots which tells of a battle of wits:

These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape, and to a less degree inside the Gulf, they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any one of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in little puffs of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colors, reds and blues and warm browns. We tried for a long time to catch them. Finally, seeing fifty or sixty in a big canyon of rock, we thought to outwit them. Surely we were more intelligent, if slower, than they. Accordingly, we pitted our obviously superior intelligence against the equally obvious physical superiority of Sally Lightfoot. Near the top of the crevice a boulder protruded. One of our party, taking a secret and circuitous route, hid himself behind this boulder, net in hand. He was completely concealed even from the stalk eyes of the crabs. Certainly they had not seen him go there. The herd of Sallys drowsed on the rocks in the lower end of the crevice. Two more of us strolled in from the seaward side, nonchalance in our postures and ingenuousness on our faces. One might have thought that we merely strolled along in a contemplation which severely excluded Sally Lightfoots. In time the herd moved ahead of us, matching our nonchalance. We did not hurry, they did not hurry. When they passed the boulder, helpless and unsuspecting, a large net was to fall over them and imprison them. But they did not know that. They moved along until they were four feet from the boulder, and then as one crab they turned to the right, climbed up over the edge of the crevice and down to the sea again.

But, crabs were not the only ones that successfully resisted human advances. The crew struggled with equipment as well (an outboard motor and a camera), and these struggles were a constant source of humor throughout the book.

It is impossible to say how bad our moving pictures were—one film laboratory has been eager to have a copy of the film, for it embodies in a few thousand feet, so they say, every single thing one should not do with a camera. As an object lesson to beginners they think it would be valuable. If we took close-ups of animals, someone was in the light; the aperture was always too wide or too narrow; we made little jerky pan shots back and forth; we have one of the finest sequences of unadorned sky pictures in existence—but when there was something to take about which we didn’t care, we got it perfectly. We dare say there is not in the world a more spirited and beautiful picture of a pair of blue and white shorts than that which we took passing Sail Rock.

For all the troubles they had with it, the camera was just a machine they failed to learn to operate properly. The motor, on the other hand, was a ”hateful living thing” that had a personality and quirks of its own:

We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

The more I think about it, the more I like The Log. I might be going back to some of the episodes for a dose of light and laughter. The only Steinbeck’s work I read before this was Of Mice and Men. I don’t remember much about it. I mean, I don’t remember if there was humor. It wouldn’t hurt to revisit it.

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