I’ve recently returned to the world of reading after many years away. For one of my first books back, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and I loved it. It’s very much a “J.D. book”.
East of Eden tells the storis of three generations of one family, and of the people in their lives. (Most of the book takes place in California’s Salinas Valley.) Steinbeck paints one of the characters as pure evil and one as pure good, but most are flawed masterpieces. Then he sets the wheels of the plot in motion to demonstrate his worldview, and to argue that the power of choice is the greatest gift that humankind possesses.
Steinbeck doesn’t seem to find pure evil or pure good particularly interesting. Both states are hollow, one dimensional. People like this lack something that’s essentially human. He’s much more fascinated by the typical person, the one who possesses elements of both good and bad. If you’re all good or all bad, you don’t really have a choice about what you do. You’re simply controlled by your character and moral compass (or lack thereof). But when you have a bit of both, who you are and what you do is determined by the things you choose to do.
The core idea in East of Eden is centered around the meaning of a single word from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: timshel. Different translations of the Bible translate the word in different ways:
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
For Steinbeck (and his characters), this ability to choose is a revelation. It’s what makes humans human.
“There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man.”
If you’ve been reading More Than Money this year, you know that I’ve written a lot about choice. And you can probably imagine how I feel about these passages. It’s exciting to read a novel with a plot specifically designed to showcase the consequences of choice. It’s nice to see an author create flawed characters who make bad choices but whom we can nonetheless call “good people”. We can forgive them, just as the characters forgive each other. People make mistakes. It’s how they react to those mistakes that defines who they are to become.
East of Eden contains lots of other great bits. For one, Steinbeck himself appears as a minor character (he’s just a boy when the events of the story take place). Plus there are dozens of throwaway gems scattered in the pages. Gems like these:
- “You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” Steinbeck wrote this in reference to how the Salinas Valley felt about its paltry river. But I think this applies to education, experience, and more. At the time I read it, I thought of how the more a person travels, the more they see that their own country isn’t particularly unique or special.
- “The direction of a big act will warp history, but probably all acts do the same in their degree, down to a stone stepped over in the path or a breath caught at sight of a pretty girl or a fingernail nicked in the garden soil.”
- The first section in Chapter 13 is a wonderful meditation on “man and glory”. It also compares the pros and cons of collaboration and individualism. It’s good stuff. And the first part of chapter 24 has some great thoughts on aging, dying, and memories.
- “There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”
- “In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry. So often men trip be being in a rush.”
- “A miracle once it is familiar is no longer a miracle.” This is in reference to an electric coffeepot, but could apply to any sort of technology.
There’s lots of other good stuff in East of Eden. Perhaps the most important passage for me was this bit about storytelling:
People are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And I here make a rule — a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.
This made me think of my own writing at Get Rich Slowly. When I started in 2006, I was writing about getting out of debt, about being lost and searching for a path out of the darkness. Many people could relate to my story. But the more money I had, the less relatable my experience became. People could not see themselves in me, and readers drifted away. I knew this at the time, but could never put it into words. East of Eden eloquently states the idea.
Later in the book, Steinbeck has more to say about the importance of story — specifically about the stories that make up our lives. Here’s a conversation between two of his characters:
“When we were children we lived in a story that we made up. But when I grew up the story wasn’t enough. I had to have something else, because the story wasn’t true anymore.”
“Wait — let me get it all out. Aron didn’t grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way.”
“How about you?”
“I don’t want to know how it comes out. I only want to be there while it’s going on.”
What a lovely passage.
I think Steinbeck highlights an important divide between people. Some have written a story and they want to see it come to pass. Others are active participants, but they’re not committed to a specific ending. And still others experience the story of their lives passively. No one way is “right” — although I’d argue that passive participants allow their stories to be written by other people — but those who attempt to control the direction their life takes often end up frustrated. (They’re trying to move beyond their Circle of Influence to their Circle of Concern.)
The key, of course, is to remember that each person is living a separate story. We’re ultimately each the protagonist in our tiny tale, but our stories intertwine to weave a greater tapestry. And in the grander scope of things, we must learn to give and take from each other.
Here’s another quote:
When you’re a child you’re the center of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re you own shape and size. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse, but it’s much better too.
I’m gratified to have read East of Eden, and to have resumed the reading habit. I’ve already started Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (about a months-long cross-country drive similar to the one I plan to do next year), but that’s just light reading. I’d love to find another book that’s filled with a strong story and interesting ideas. I’m thinking maybe Siddartha. Any suggestions for other books I ought to read?