The shops lining the waterfront of Cannery Row cater to a much different clientele than the men who worked in the sardine canning factors of the 1930s and 40s. You’ll find an abundance of sunglasses, year-round Christmas socks, candy, and Bay Area key chains as you dart into Starbucks or grab yogurt at Pinkberry. You can taste wines or order beer by the pitcher. You can dine in candlelit restaurants with a view of the bay or stay in a hotel for $450 a night. You can even buy a Harley Davidson—right there on Cannery Row.
One thing you’ll have trouble finding, however, is a copy of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. That’s right. The book that gave this waterfront its name, “Cannery Row,” is almost nowhere to be found. Several years ago, I visited Monterey to see the setting of Steinbeck’s book for myself. At the time, I had not read Cannery Row, and I could not imagine a better place to do so. I didn’t see any bookstores on the main street, so I walked into a jewelry store to ask for help.
Me: Do you know where I can get Cannery Row?
Cashier: You’re in Cannery Row.
Me: I’m sorry. I mean the book.
Me: I’m looking for a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Me: Is there any place I can buy books around here.
Cashier: I don’t think so.
After having minor variations of the same conversation in two other stores, I decided to check every business on Cannery Row for the book. I spent the good part of an hour going from place to place. To be fair, a few people had some familiarity with Steinbeck, but no one knew where I could find his books. Near the aquarium, which marks the end of the brine-smelling shopping district, I went into one final retail store. Its shelves bulged with toy surfboards, sunscreen, straw hats, and stuffed bears in Alcatraz jumpsuits. Much to my surprise, an employee told me that they might have the book against the back wall. Sure enough, next to a display of pirate masks and a stack of T-shirts with the words “I ♥ Canneries,” there was one copy of the Penguin paperback edition.
Long before my trip to Cannery Row, I had always admired Steinbeck’s work. I am still drawn to his characters—their longing for something better, their fear of loneliness, their dusty, well-worn integrity, and their straight-talking ways. I have written about his books and taught them to countless students. It goes without saying that I was disappointed in Cannery Row. Neither the stores nor the tourists seemed to care about or have any connection whatsoever with Steinbeck. It appeared that Cannery Row, like so many historical landmarks in America, had become just another excuse to buy and sell stuff.
But my quest for Cannery Row also reminded me of how out-of-step I have always been with popular tastes. I have trouble imagining many of my college students making a special trip for a book. In a sense, my Cannery Row copy of Steinbeck’s novel is a testament to the way my passion for literature matters so little to most people, to the way American culture tends to measure art in terms of profit and popularity—not for what it teaches us about our humanity. That book still makes me wonder if one day a deep connection with literature will be as difficult to find as a copy of Cannery Row on Cannery Row?
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