The concept is simple. Take a book, a film, a piece of music, a person (etc.), ramble for a couple of hundred words, and see where you end up. This week – Steinbeck, Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Penguin Modern Classics. I’m going to begin with the first book I read on this trip, ‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck. It’s an easy going, gentle roam across choice cuts of the USA, taking in the Pacific, the Panhandle and New York City, amongst other places sometimes obscure, but mostly cities and regions I have always wanted to visit: Minneapolis St Paul, Montana, and the various states that make up New England (whose people are, according to John, somewhat “reserved”). I should mention at this point that Charley is a dog, and perhaps a symbol of Steinbeck’s settling into a comfortable old age he would surely have tried to avoid; for while the itinerary of his trip is heroic in its enormity, his description is a sedentary pipe-and-slippers narrative. The original date of publication is interesting, as the first pressing came out in 1965, a mere three years before Steinbeck’s death. An awareness of mortality, however, does not feature, and due to the fact that three years prior to printing he was awarded the Nobel, it is certainly assured. It is typical of his later career, when perhaps his reputation was on the wane, but he doesn’t seem concerned; this is the work of a man whose status has been confirmed, and who can write freely again. As he himself said, “Once a bum, always a bum.” The themes of travel and upheaval run throughout his work, never better personified than by Tom Joad, whose depiction in the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ led to his induction as something of an American cult hero, to the extent that Bruce Springsteen named an entire album after him (‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’). Acoustic, pensive, and on the whole pretty good (although true seekers of Pennsylvanian steel-town melancholia should head straight for ‘Nebraska.’ I’ve just realised how little geographical sense that statement made. In fact, the whole album is all over the place: Atlantic City? The New Jersey Turnpike? The Boss needs a map). However, it wasn’t Springsteen who sealed Tom Joad’s fame – true folkies will point to ‘Tom Joad’ (sometimes known as ‘Tom Joad’s Blues’) by Woody Guthrie (with a little help from his fascist killin’ guitar). Actually, while I’m on the subject, his autobiography is well worth a read; it’s written in his well-worn, rambling patois, and consists of bits and pieces here and there, snapshots of his America (like the Joad family, he was an ‘okie’ who escaped the Dust Bowl and headed for California), memories and anecdotes. It’s available is Penguin Modern Classics (as all the best books are), which must surely be a sign of it’s worth. Although, I have to say that of late I’ve come to appreciate Vintage Classics more and more. With an author list containing the likes of Ballard, Hemingway, Greene (for whose books Vintage have secured introductions from names such as Zadie Smith (The Quiet American), JM Coetzee (Brighton Rock) and John Updike (The Power and the Glory)) and Burgess, perhaps they are now in a position to challenge Penguin’s previously unassailable position. Talking of Burgess, his ‘Earthly Powers’ was the last book I read. Burgess always said that the overwhelming success enjoyed by ‘A Clockwork Orange’ annoyed him, because it meant that many of his other works were routinely ignored. So as not to feel his posthumous wrath, I decided to try this, an epic of six hundred and fifty pages that spans sixty years and covers events like the first and second world wars. It is told through the eyes of Kenneth Toomey, a gay author who is never convinced by the quality of his novels, but who is asked, when in his eighties, to put forward the case for the canonization of his friend, and deceased pontiff, Carlo Campagnati. Throughout the novel, Burgess displays his wealth of experience s a storyteller and entertains the reader with wordplay that often spans two or three different languages. Crucially, the book shows that there was much more to Burgess than his most famous work. In fact, ‘Earthly Powers’ is perhaps as different from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as a novel can be – in it, Burgess acknowledges the literary world and his contemporaries (at one point, when the subject of religion, specifically Catholicism, comes up, he remarks that “we’re entering Graham Greene territory), and his use of language (almost unparalleled) is in stark contrast to the artificial slang spoken by the droogs. And so we reach the end. Seeing as I began with the first book I read on this trip and ended with the last, I think it’s made a surprising amount of sense, don’t you? Next week, I’ll begin with the song that’s been playing in my head for a good two weeks, ‘Miss You’ by The Rolling Stones.