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Maybe We Need More “Travels with Charley”

By Larry Gennari
Boston Business Journal
January 20, 2023

Thank goodness for dogs. For so many, especially during the last three tense and turbulent years, our dogs have been a source of tactile comfort and unconditional companionship. Dogs also have connected us, especially in parks and public places, allowing us to share our stories and in many ways, our shared humanity. No wonder more than 48 million households now have a dog, a number that increased by more than 11% during the pandemic.

As we begin 2023, we need our dog friends (and poop bags, for those community walks) more than ever. Rising inflation, global conflicts, and rapid technological change have most decisionmakers worried about the direction of the overall economy and their future in it. Will this be another year “gone to the dogs?”

I don’t know, but these days, I’m thinking about an earlier time, a memorable dog, and a gifted writer trying to make sense of a shifting economy, a new generation, and a changing country. In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck chronicles a cross-country road trip with his travel companion and friend, Charley, a wise and sensitive brown poodle, who helps him connect to people and their revealing economic stories. Published in 1962, the book was among Steinbeck’s last and best, and it set the stage for many important cultural, business, and policy conversations. Could a current savvy thinker with a precocious dog retrace some of Steinbeck’s steps and restart important dialogues today? Sure, but I’d recommend that they prepare by reading a few recent and insightful books.

Maine is among the first states Steinbeck and Charley visit, and there they encounter a listless and unhappy waitress, working paycheck to paycheck in a dead-end job. Echoes of this scene are reflected in business journalist Rick Wartzman’s recent book Still Broke, an engaging must-read history of Walmart and its often-fraught relationship with its frontline store employees. As one of the nation’s largest employers, Walmart has substantial influence, and its determined efforts to improve wages, training and benefits for a more full-time workforce are impressive. Still, Wartzman argues, Walmart and other influential companies can only get us so far. Congress needs to do more — actually, a lot more — given that 80% of Americans need to earn at least $20 per hour to make a living family wage. Six decades after Steinbeck’s trek, many American families still struggle just to stay in place.

Continuing into the Midwest, Charley helps Steinbeck meet people in Ohio and Indiana for a conversation about local and national news. In contrast to New Englanders, these folks are eager and quick to engage visitors and learn more about new and different places. Turns out that stories, especially local ones well told, were a critical source of inspiration, innovation and imagination to readers and listeners across communities. That’s still true, according to Quinnipiac dean Chris Roush, author of the terrific book The Future Of Business Journalism: Why It Matters For Wall Street And Main Street. The consolidation of business media has led to nonstop national coverage of public markets and big companies, much to the detriment of local stories that matter to the entrepreneurs, business owners and policymakers trying to build and sustain their own economic communities. Roush’s clear and direct suggestions for training young business journalists and expanding local-media business models are incredibly important. Steinbeck, who also understood the connective power of shared stories, would agree wholeheartedly.

Finally, Steinbeck and Charley visit California and the West, where Steinbeck laments the steady march of technology and its uncertain impact on society. We have much the same worries today, even more so in an interdependent, interconnected world. For an update on those pressing concerns, I’d strongly recommend reading two books in tandem: Chip War: The Fight For The World’s Most Critical Technology, a detailed history of the semiconductor industry and its vital importance to national security, by Tufts professor Chris Miller, and also Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China, an urgent and provocative assessment of the global economy and shifting geopolitical alliances, by Tufts professor Michael Beckley and Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands.

As Steinbeck notes toward the end, we all move on from a “permanent and changeless past.”  We need to understand, as he last did, standing among the redwoods, that the future will arrive and “we can’t go home again.” For 2023 and beyond, we all might handle that insight just a little bit better with a trusted four-legged friend at our side.

Read in the Boston Business Journal

Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival.  Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.

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