"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

I have to start this post by saying that this is a recommendation, but be aware that this is not a terribly pleasant or easy book to read.  It is well written.  I love what it says about what it is to be human.  It gave me hope.  It tells stories of some good people.  It is making me think and look at myself and the world around me. 

But, it is a hard book to read.  Not just from the sheer size of it, but from the weight it will leave with you.  It is full of people who hurt each other.  It tells terrible stories about mean and ugly things.  There is not a lot of happiness here.  There rarely is much happiness in Steinbeck's works.  The other two works of his that I have read, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men did not tell happy stories either.  And yet I loved both of them.  I'm not sure I love this one quite as much as the other two, but it did give me even more respect for the author.  He was a brilliant thinker and writer.

The books covers the lives of two California families, moving down the generations as they interact with each other, and ultimately ending with two brothers who reenact the Bible story of Cain and Abel.  This synopsis sounds very simplistic in comparison to the depths of the book itself.

It really comes down to the question of what being human really means.  Its main thesis is about our freedom to choose between good and evil.  That our good or bad actions are not set by predestination, lineage, or birthright, but that we can choose what we will be.  That no one is perfect, and it is the combination of our good and bad tendencies that make each of us so wonderfully human.  No matter what kind of bad things happen to us or what kind of bad things people do to us, we still have a choice within ourselves as to whether we will react in love or hate.  It is about understanding that choice and our freedom to make it, and accepting ourselves as human, which includes making mistakes, but also choosing often to be good and kind.

Steinbeck always manages to find these precious nuggets of hope and beauty amid the struggles of humanity, but in this book especially, these nuggets are few and far between, and often you feel like you are wading endlessly through unhappiness to get to each one.  For some of you, it will be worth the energy expended to read it.  But for others, you may not feel up to it, especially if you want a quick read or an easy read.  Honestly, though I'm glad I've read it, I can't say I enjoyed it.  And yet I feel that it will stick with me for a while.  Not in a bad way like some books, where my mind returns again and again to scenes that I would much rather forget.  But in a way that I think will help me try to be a better person.

East of Eden leaves you with a lot of thinking to do, mostly about yourself and what kind of person you are. It's not a terribly comfortable feeling, but sometimes that can be good for us.

I hope this will still make sense in the morning, but I felt like I needed to get this all written down tonight so I can sleep.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  As this book points out, "Thou mayest choose for thyself..."

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