Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck is a phenomenally engaging and complex account of a scientific expedition by one of the greatest American novelists. The science itself makes it a worthwhile read, but what tugs most at your heartstrings, and fires most sparks in your head is exceptional prose that serves a cocktail of science, philosophy, anthropology and history. The Log from the Sea of Cortez succinctly presents Steinbeck's beliefs about humanity, vanity, intellect, progress, technology, morality and society, and thus this book provides a key to deeper understanding of Steinbeck's novels, life and work.

At the simplest level, the book recounts a 4,000 mile voyage on a sardine boat out of Monterey, California around the Baja peninsula into the Sea of Cortez. This expedition, undertaken by Steinbeck with his biologist friend Edward Ricketts, was aimed at collecting a wide range of marine animals and observing them in their pristine condition. The curiosity-driven adventure provided Steinbeck and Ricketts an opportunity to explore marine lifeforms and their subtle adaptations in various gulfs, bays, estuaries and reefs along the shores of the Sea of Cortez. The book describes daily events and labor that contributed to a rich harvest (or collection) of many species of crabs, shrimps, anemones, corals, sea cucumbers, sharks, string rays, mussels, clams, and other marine animals.

Many critics and in fact, Steinbeck himself, have recognized that the biologist Ricketts exercised a great deal of influence on the creative and imaginative life of Steinbeck. This log and the complete text of The Sea of Cortez are obvious examples of their collaboration. Based on self-consistent evidence, it is clear that Steinbeck himself was a seeker of deeper knowledge of the scientific and biological world around him, and that his interaction and friendship with Ricketts broadened his perspective on science, life and humanity. In our contemporary world, there are fewer than ever individuals who are equally comfortable in discussions that involve bot literature and science. Steinbeck seems equally deft in writing about both realms.
The book is full of passages about research and science that are gems in their own right, and I am sure many scientists would enjoy reading these. Example sentences: "There is a curious idea among the unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves." Or these sentences from another chapter: "It is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels. The greatest danger to a speculative biologist is analogy. It is a pitfall to be avoided -- the industry of the bee, the economics of the ant, the villainy of snake, all i human terms have given us profound misconceptions of animals." Somewhere else in the book, Steinback writes: "There is one great difficulty with a good hypothesis. When it is completed and rounded, the corners smooth and the content cohesive and coherent, it is likely to become a thing in itself, a work of art. It is then like a finished sonnet or a painting completed. One hates to disturb it."

There are particularly powerful and evocative discussions and passages about the distance and difference between the timeless, archaic culture of the Native American (aka American Indians) and the hasty, wasteful, money-minded culture of urban Americans. Steinbeck explored similar themes in his other books and in the script he wrote for a documentary titled "The Forgotten Village" (1941).

Steinbeck the writer is as soul stirring here as he was in The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, his world view expressed in this log will be in conflict with the same people who labeled him as a socialist or a communist. Though many people see Steinbeck as a propagandist who spews venom against the rich and the ruling elite, a critical examination of Steinbeck's writing here shows him as a person who wants to see reality as it 'is'. This reality, be it socio-political realm or biosphere, contains weak and strong, preys and predators, survivors and dead. Though Steinbeck writes about humans or marine animals like a detached observer, his sympathies seem to lie with the underdog. Perhaps that is the reason for his popularity around the world.

The book reaffirms my belief that great scientists and artists have both caliber and appetite for acquiring knowledge in diverse realms. I think the travelogue is an inspirational text and a valuable resource that should be read by all practicing or aspiring marine biologists.  It is a must read for anyone who really cares about the writing of Steinbeck, and I dare say, for all scientifically-minded people.

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