“This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we’” is how Steinbeck describes the Joad’s family journey along Route 66 to California as that “western land nervous under the beginning change” in The Grapes of Wrath. In keeping with this spirit of collective awareness, the council launched its first project under the new California Stories initiative: California Reads: Reading The Grapes of Wrath (RTGOW) in 2002, bringing Californians across the state together to read and discuss this powerful book in honor of the centenary of John Steinbeck’s birth.
Although the organization had previously organized large-scale reading and discussion programs, this was its most ambitious effort to date. In collaboration with the California Center for the Book, a statewide reading promotion organization affiliated with the Library of Congress, with the generous support of the California State Library, the project enabled the presentation of over 800 events around the state during a six-month period. Over 160 public libraries participated in RTGOW, providing reading and discussion programs, film screenings, live performances, depression-era dinners, poetry slams, writing workshops, exhibits, and oral history projects to their communities developed with funding and resources provided by the council. Book discussions took place in six languages other than English, including Arabic, Vietnamese, and Korean, as well as Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin.
Several high-profile events attracted wide attention. In Los Angeles, LA Theatre Works produced a weeklong run of Frank Galati’s Tony Award-winning play The Grapes of Wrath. In Fresno, people turned out at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop to participate in a 24-hour read-a-thon of the novel, and in San Francisco, Studs Terkel appeared in a special CCH-sponsored evening of conversation with writer Calvin Trillin. For the first time since it was published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath reached the bestseller list in California. Penguin Books, the publisher, was so impressed by the project’s promise they agreed to issue the first Spanish-language edition of the novel for the US market.
At a troubled time in our nation’s history, RTGOW offered an opportunity for Californians to explore the book’s enduring themes in relation to their own experiences of migration, economic insecurity, and income inequality, while encouraging them to rediscover the strength that undergirds us, “the people.”