My interest in rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck was purely personal: reading it the first time was what prompted me to start a book blog in the first place. I enjoyed my reread, mostly because Steinbeck’s writing is so incredible. The themes of good versus evil in human nature still felt universal to me, although I wasn’t as perfectly satisfied on this reread as I was the first time I visited it. East of Eden is a book I’d like to keep rereading at various points in my life.
My History (AKA Why This Book?)
When my son was a newborn, I noticed my husband was reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This was pre-book blogging days for me, and I was always searching for a recommended book to read. I did not yet have all my lists, and I honestly don’t know how I chose my next book to read. In retrospect, my book selection process appears to have been rather random. Now, I can’t imagine not knowing what my next book will be. At any rate, because I was intrigued by the passages my husband mentioned to me, I also picked East of Eden, not knowing much about the novel, and not even counting pages as I read it. (Now, I tend to look at how many pages a book is before I even begin!)
I finished East of Eden in February 2008, and I wanted to get feedback. What did others like about it? What was the main theme? How could I put into words just why this book was good? Certainly, fratricide and prostitution are not my normal reading fare, so there must be something special in it that captured my attention. I really loved the novel.
I wrote some brief posts on my personal webpage trying to capture just why I loved the writing, and why the themes of good and evil were so universal. And I got little response. My limited number of personal blog readers either hadn’t read it, or it had been so long since they read it that they didn’t remember it, or they didn’t care to read it. I was writing about my passion for a book for the wrong audience.
I began searching for other blogger reviews and discussions about this book. I began searching for lists of “if you liked this book, you’ll like that book.” I began planning my reading. I found the Pulitzer Project website and began reading the blogs listed on that site. And suddenly, I had a huge list of books to read, and a plethora of other readers who read what I wanted to hear about.
I’ve since copied those two posts to this site. They aren’t typical “reviews” and I did a poor job of capturing the novel for a general audience. But East of Eden prompted me to get thinking about the books I read, to write up my thoughts, and otherwise to read for my general enlightenment, and not just for entertainment.
Thoughts on My Second Read
My first read, I was impressed mainly with the writing, the overall themes of good versus evil. I stretched out my first read over a few months, when my son was an infant. I still noticed those same things on this read, stopping and gasping at the beauty of Steinbeck’s description of the poppies, for example:
And mixed with these [lupins] were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be the color of the poppies. (page 4)
As with my first read, I loved the discussion of choice and the word timshel as it relates to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. This is a book about choice and human nature, and I love how it all comes full circle with one of the final words being “Timshel!”
On this second read, which I likewise tried to stretch out over many weeks, I was more drawn in to the characters, and I felt that the novel kept dropping characters I was most interested in. I was drawn toward Charles on this read (who I remember disliking a lot on my first read) and then of course, he was dropped and the story followed Adam. Then I found myself really drawn into Adam and Samuel and Lee’s relationship, and Samuel and Adam dropped out of focus while Lee and the twins (specifically Cal) took center stage. Who was this novel really about?
I think that is part of the wonderfully complexity to East of Eden. It has Biblical tones to it – after all, a central point is a conversation about Cain and Abel, and the title reflects on the fact that Adam and Eve were sent “East of Eden” after being cast out of God’s presense. Life is complicated, and the choices we face reflect on the past generation. Yet, we have our own choices here and now.
Just as with my first read, I don’t feel I can properly capture why I enjoy East of Eden. Although I finished reading it two weeks ago, I’ve put off writing this post, simply because even on a second read, I don’t feel I got all of it. I do have to say that I much preferred the first half of the novel to the second, and I think that is how it felt on my first read because the details in the second were not as clear to me. Adam and Charles’ relationship intrigued me much more than Cal and Aron’s, for some reason, and I sincerely missed Samuel Hamilton’s wisdom.
I picked up East of Eden again as a part of the Classic Reads Book Club, but I didn’t follow the reading schedule and haven’t joined in much of the discussion due to my busy life right now. I had intended to write thoughtful posts in the midst of my reread, but that didn’t happen. Would it be more clear now had I written all along? I don’t know. I just know that there is so much wisdom in this novel that I will have to revisit it for a third time in a few more years. This is going to be a touchstone novel for me, I think.
What do you think of East of Eden? Go to the Classic Reads Book Club and share your thoughts on their discussion questions if you want.
What is (are) your touchstone novel(s)? A touchstone novel is one that you’ll keep coming back to because of some depth you hope to get on the next read, or maybe because you read it at some important moment in your life that stuck with you. My other touchstone novel is Beloved by Toni Morrison.