Nothing good gets away: Advice from John Steinbeck on Love


John Steinbeck adored his two sons, Thom, the eldest, and John (better known by his nickname, “Catbird”).  After a tumultuous divorce with his second wife, Gwyn, the mother of the boys, and a long and usually loving marriage but also difficult relationship with his first wife, Carol, Steinbeck had found true love with his third wife, Elaine. The two were married until his death, from 1949 to 1968.

My dissertation is on Steinbeck and in my research, I have spent months perusing his vast collection of personal letters, most of which are housed in the Special Collections at Stanford University. In addition to the disciplined daily composition of his novels, Steinbeck typically wrote six to eight letters a day: to friends, family, and colleagues. Almost everyone kept the letters.

I got to know the relationship between Steinbeck and his sons very well through those letters. He was a marvelous father. When he saw traveling could offer his boys a better education than traditional schooling, he took Thom and Catbird with him and Elaine to Europe and elsewhere. Their tutor was the very young playwright, Terrance McNally.

Here is a letter that fourteen-year-old Thom received from his dad, before those traveling years, when Thom was at boarding school in Connecticut and was just beginning to be interested in girls.  It has been widely published before, but it is such a beautiful thing…everyone should read it.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



There are many things I love about the letter: he is to expect a response from Elaine, as a woman’s point of view will also be helpful; that he is wise enough to know to not dismiss Thom’s feelings, just because he is young; that he can tell him in language a boy of that age can understand, and really, speaks plainly to anyone of any age, about the types of love.  There is not just one kind; some are negative and destructive, some are positive and constructive.

And in closing, he does not forget the object of Thom’s affection. He acknowledges her by name and welcomes her.

Here is a recent picture of Thom Steinbeck, who, like his father, also became a writer (The Silver Lotus, Down to a Soundless Seaand favors John in many ways.


Do You Live in America’s Least, or Most, Literate Cities?


The late, great comedian Bill Hicks tells one of my favorite stories about reading.  Following one of his late night gigs, he stops at a Waffle House to eat.  Alone, he pulls out a book. A waitress comes up to him,  tray balanced expertly on her fingertips, peers over his shoulder and asks, “What are you reading for?” Not “What are you reading?”… “What are you reading…for.” 

Chances are, Hicks was in one of the towns listed below as the least literate in America. Recently, the Wall Street Journal crunched the numbers to make determinations about cities with the worst, and best, reading habits. The criteria for these determinations included weekly newspaper circulation rates, the percentage of adults with college degrees, the number of retail bookstores per 10,000 people, and the median income.

Least Literate:

1o.  Long Beach, California

9.  Mesa, Arizona

8.  Aurora, Colorado

7.  Fresno, California

6.  San Antonio, Texas

5.  Anaheim, California

4.  El Paso, Texas

3.  Stockton, California

2.  Corpus Christi, Texas

1.  Bakersfield, California

Most Literate:

10.  Portland, Oregon

9.  St. Louis, Missouri

8.  Atlanta, Georgia

7.  Boston, Massachusetts

6.  St. Paul, Minnesota

5.  Denver, Colorado

4.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

3.  Minneapolis, Minnesota

2.  Seattle, Washington

1.  Washington, D.C.

Shakespeare? It’s in the DNA


Are you old enough to remember when floppy disks were actually floppy? Or maybe when disks were 3″ wide? (Yes, kids, that’s what that little icon to “save” your work to your hard drives and flash drives represents, a hard little disk that held approximately two Word files or a half a dozen pictures (but not at the same time).

Maybe you think data storage has reached its pinnacle. It is rather startling to realize you carry more technology in your pocket on your smart phone than was available for the moon landing (but with considerably less LOL cats).  But when you understand that there is now over one trillion gigabytes of information in the world, not even the iPhone 204 can keep up with that pace. (Here’s what 10 trillion gigabytes looks like in numbers: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000…. ten plus twenty one zeroes).

Every method of storage we have thus far employed has had long-term storage problems. CDs and DVDs scratch and wear out, as do magnetic tapes. But what about DNA, nature’s storage system? DNA is compact and durable. We can extract DNA information from bones that are millions of years old.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually science-in-action. Nick Goldman heads up a research team at European Bioinformatics Institute in the U.K. Goldman and his fellow scientists are studying DNA data storage and Goldman has written a paper on the process which appeared  in the journal Nature last week.

In an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s “Science Friday,” Goldman explains that DNA utilizes a storage system much like computers use ones and zeroes so “[w]e wrote a computer program that embodied a code that would convert the zeros and ones from a hard disk drive into the letters that we use to represent DNA, and then we – our collaborators in California  – were able to actually synthesize physical DNA.”

Once the scientists realized this was possible, they decided what they would first try to encode and store:

[W]e chose a photograph of our own institute because we’re sort of self-publicists at heart, I guess, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream,” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a PDF that contained in fact the paper, the scientific paper by Watson and Crick that first described the structure of DNA itself.

All of this information, Golman says, is saved  on the equivalent of a speck of dust. How large of an area would contain all 10 trillion gigabytes of the world’s information? It would “fit in the back of a station wagon.”

Bookless Libraries? They’re Coming


Just this week, I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey and one of the scenes was set in the library. Beautiful leather-bound volumes filled the vast room from floor to ceiling and covered every wall. Lord Grantham took no notice of them at all, as he stood, brandy in hand, waiting for his valet to fetch his evening coat.

The visual image of this early twentieth century library struck me on a couple of levels; first, how books like the ones that adorn the Crawley’s home were once meant for the very elite. The servants downstairs might have indulged themselves occasionally in a “penny dreadful” but it is unlikely that any of them read, or had access to, much more.

The second thing that I noticed was the sheer numbers of tomes, and how unnecessary, really, it is in the twenty-first century to have to devote so much physical space to the printed word. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing I love more than the heft of a book. I love the way they smell. I delight in actually turning pages.

Until it is time to move.

I have as many books in my Kindle now as I do on my buckling shelves. And they all fit in my smallest pocketbook.

So I suppose I understand that modern libraries are facing the same dilemma. The space and time needed to house and administer books is enormous. Not long ago, “bookless” libraries were only an idea, but now they are happening.

This fall, San Antonio, Texas will open its first entirely electronic lending library. There will be fifty computer terminals and eReaders that patrons can check out and take home. Even though the project cost $1.5 million dollars, its advocate, Judge Nelson Wolff, argues that it is cost effective. The new institution, dubbed “BiblioTech” uses existing city facilities, and, perhaps more importantly, is available to a largely underserved community whose residents often do not have their own personal electronic devices.

Is this the future for most libraries? Probably. But not for a while yet. To say there is still an enormous amount of material to be digitized is a understatement. And there are copyright issues with which to contend. Sarah Houghton, director of a library in California, complains that “99 percent” of the materials that the general public want to check out,  such as best-sellers, simply aren’t “available to libraries digitally.”

Another issue inhibiting the growth of bookless libraries is the training of staff, not only on use of the devices, but how to explain them to their patrons, many of whom may have had little or no experience with digital readers. Moreover, the expense of acquiring all of these new devices is often prohibitive for most public libraries. And what happens when these devices become outdated? Today, it seems that technology improves every two years, if not sooner.

Better not upset Lord Grantham just yet. You may still need to borrow that volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Shakespeare in His Time: New Audio Guides for Authentic Pronunciation


Might the actors who comprised Lord Chamberlain’s Men have sounded more like Americans from the East Coast? That is the conclusion that Sir Trevor Nunn, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, has come to, after working closely with the actor Kevin Spacey.

However, the renowned Shakespeare scholar John Barton, contends that the speech was likely a blend of both English and Irish accents. And some historians complain that the accent isn’t as much of a problem as the pacing, which, they argue, is too slow in modern productions.

In the past, you would have to attend a play in which the actors were truly trying to offer a “real” rendition of Shakespearean speech. But  now the British Library has taken the advice of those who have studied how to render authentic sixteenth century English dialect. Several audio versions have been released. Listen and judge for yourself:

Extract from Romeo and Juliet

Or, perhaps you’re in the mood for a sonnet? Here’s Sonnet 116:

And here is another excerpt from Macbeth:

Ben Crystal, a British actor who has long advocated for making Shakespeare accessible, curated the ambitious project.

“For the first time in centuries,” he explains, “we have 75 recorded minutes of sonnets, speeches and scenes recorded as we hope Shakespeare heard them. It is, in short, Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before.

“The modern presentation of Shakespeare’s plays and poems in period pronunciation has already attracted a wide following, despite the fact that hardly any recordings have been publicly available,” he said.

For more information on the project, click here.

RELAX. The World Ended in 634 BCE

If you are stressing because there is not a single bed-and-breakfast in Bugarach, France (purportedly the only place in the world safe from the predicted Mayan apocalypse of 2012), relax.  For a variety of reasons, the world is NOT going to end tomorrow. December 21, 2012, has been ballyhooed for years as the date the world will end. Fin. Finito. That’s all folks. And I’m not paying that cable bill either.

Except… that it won’t be.

The list of “Yep-that’s-it. The-world-has-become-as-evil-as-it-possibly-can-be-and-____________(your god here)-has-HAD-ENOUGH” is a loooooooooooooooooooong one, folks. Better get crackin’ on buying that gift for your aunt, because no one is gonna give you an eternal excuse.  Here is a brief list of the various “We Are DOOMED!” scenarios, all come and gone:


634 BCE and Some Pissed-Off Eagles

Many Romans feared that the city would be destroyed in the 120th year of its founding. There was a myth that 12 eagles had revealed to Romulus a mystical number representing the lifetime of Rome, and some early Romans hypothesized that each eagle represented 10 years.


1st Century, Early Christians

Some first-century Christians expected Jesus to return within one generation of his death. According to some scholars, Paul the Apostle was one of these.


375-400 CE, Martin of Tours

Stated that the world would end before 400. Writing “”There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”


500 CE, Hippolytus of Rome,Sextus Julius Africanus,Irenaeus

All three predicted Jesus would return in the year 500.


January 1, 1000: Pope Sylvester II

The Millenium Apocalypse. Various Christians predicted the end of the world on this date, including Pope Sylvester II. Riots in Europe.


Panicky Europeans, 1346-51

The black plague spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.


1656, Various Christians 

There’s always been a lot of monkeying around with numbers, with sects swearing that they have figured out the secret formula (yeah…riiiight…. we still don’t know what, precisely, the secret spices are in KFC…). Anyhoo…. “[s]ome Christians believed the world would end this year, as 1656 was the number of years between Creation and the Great Flood in the Bible.”


1697, Cotton Mather

Well-known for his love of a good prank (kidding), “[t]his Puritan minister predicted the world would end this year. After the prediction failed, he revised the date of the End two more times.”

(Okay.. this is getting tedious. There are literally dozens more but in the interest of time, and of course, our imminent demise, let’s fast forward to the twentieth century).


Feb. 4, 1962: “Psychic” Jeane Dixon

Predicted a planetary alignment on this day was to bring destruction to the world.


1975, Jehovah’s Witnesses

In 1966, Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated it had been 6000 years since man’s creation; therefore, in the fall of 1975  it would be “appropriate” for Christ’s thousand-year reign to begin. These claims were repeated throughout the late 1960. In 1974, they reaffirmed their belief that there was just a short time remaining before “the wicked world’s end.”


Oct/Nov 1982:  Pat Robertson, Evangelical Pastor

In late 1976, Robertson predicted that the end of the world was coming in October or November 1982. (Well, that was the year of my first date, an event many would’ve predicted would bring the world to an end so perhaps a little leeway for ol’ Pat).


April 29, 1987:  Leland Jensen, Halley’s Comet

Jensen predicted that Halley’s Comet would be pulled into Earth’s orbit on April 29, 1988, causing widespread destruction.


July, 1999: Nostradamus 

A prediction attributed to Nostradamus stating the “King of Terror” would come from the sky in “1999 and seven months” led to fears of the end.


Annnnnnnnnnnd… Presenting… Despite All Historical Evidence and Obvious Fallacies to the Contrary! THE MAYANS!

The so-called Mayan apocalypse at the start of the 14th b’ak’tun. The Earth is destroyed by an asteroidNibiru, or some other interplanetary object; an alien invasion; or a supernova.

Good night, all. Unless I am destroyed by aliens or burned to a crisp by a supernova, I’ll see you next week with some elegant toasts for the New Year, in which, surely, there will be predictions that all of us will become toast.

How Reading Kafka Can Make You Smarter

Got a big test coming up? Think you’ve tried every study tip available? Think again…

Here’s one you likely haven’t heard of: read a short story by Franz Kafka before your exam and you may come out of it with an improved test score. The short story in question is a surreal work by Kafka called “A Country Doctor.” It was selected by post-doctoral researcher Travis Proulx (of the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Professor of Psychology Steven J. Heine (University of British Columbia) in their 2009 study specifically because of its absurdist elements. The hypothesis behind their research was that the exposure to a strange and unnerving stimulus would lead the brain to look for structure and order in any subsequent activity.

The Method:

The method of Proulx and Heine’s study involved exposing a test group to the surreal stimulus (in this case “A Country Doctor”) and then administering a grammar test to the group. The test was made up of “an artificial-grammar learning task in which [subjects] were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings. They were asked to copy the individual letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.” A control group was also tested; these subjects’ pre-test reading consisted of a substantially edited version of Kafka’s text, which arranged the story in a more straightforward plot structure. Proulx and Heine labeled the surreal stimulus as a “Meaning Threat”–“something that fundamentally does not make sense”–while the absence of a surreal stimulus was categorized as having No-Meaning Threat.

The Results:

It was quickly apparent that Proulx and Heine’s hypothesis was correct; the test subjects who had been exposed to the Meaning Threat (“A Country Doctor”) not only found more patterns within the letter strings presented to them, but they were also correct in their findings more of the time than the test subjects who were not exposed to that surreal stimulus.

“People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.” -Travis Proulx

It turns out that the test subjects were so unsettled by the absurdism in Kafka’s short story that their brains felt compelled to find order and meaning afterwards, as if to make up for the nonsensical nature of what came before it.

So, how can this be applied to your studies?

Well, besides reading “A Country Doctor” before a test, there are a number of other Meaning Threats you could apply to your life. You just have to understand what exactly a Meaning Threat is. You need something that challenges your very nature and the way you innately look at the world. When, for example, we think of fire, we instinctively associate it with heat. Now imagine placing your hand over a flame and feeling an icy coldness, the exact opposite of your expectations. Pretty disturbing, right? That’s exactly what a threat to meaning is. Meaning “is an expected association within one’s environment.” A Meaning Threat is therefore something that doesn’t make sense.

When a committed meaning framework is threatened, people experience an arousal state that prompts them to affirm any other meaning framework to which they are committed.

Exposing yourself to mind-opening (or mind-bending) works similar to Kafka’s will spur you to find patterns and structure in other works. These can include the works of Surrealist painters, or certain movies, like “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch or “Un Chien Andalou” by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.