East of Eden (review)

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East of Eden - 1962 Edition

East of Eden – 1962 Edition

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn’t a proper review, just a list of things I noticed / liked / disliked about the Salinas Valley California family saga East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

The book started out like books written in the middle of last century do—slowly, with lots of description. But I didn’t mind as it was all grand, large-stroke painting. Though I do remember thinking, somewhere around page 50, I wonder when he’ll have all the furniture in place.

At the beginning I was confused over who was who. Steinbeck embarks on telling several family histories which, at the start, have no connection with each other. A family tree or a who’s who section would have helped.

There are some pretty dark characters. Kate / Cathy is incredibly evil and though her activities are mostly only hinted at, there was a point at which I wondered if I should / wanted to read on. I persevered and I’m glad I did.

I really enjoyed the way Steinbeck explored the theme of good and evil, whether we’re born pre-determined to be evil (with evil genes, so to speak) or whether we have choice. He riffed on the bad-brother, good-brother archetypes Cain and Abel, creating two sets of C&A brothers (Charles and Adam Trask; later Adam begets twins Caleb and Aron).

His character Liza Hamilton, wife of Samuel Hamilton is the most recognizably Christian of the characters. Steinbeck first portrays her in an almost Dickensian way:

“She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do” – p. 7 (1962, or thereabouts, edition).

However, by the end of the book she comes across as Samuel’s anchor, his true north. Steinbeck’s softening portrayal of her sheds a much more serious and sympathetic light on the faith aspect of the book than I expected when I read the beginning.

In closing, here are a couple of my favorite passages from this incredibly well-written book. The first is Samuel Harrison, talking to Adam’s servant Lee just before they name the twins. He is referring to Liza’s mother’s Bible and Bible use in general:

“’This one has been scraped and gnawed at,’ he said. ‘I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places they are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly’” p. 237.

The last quote sums up, in my mind, the book’s theme. It’s a passage in which the author stands back momentarily from telling his story and reflects:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught … in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” p. 366.

If you want to know more about East of Eden’s plot and characters, check the East of Eden entry in Wikipedia.

Oh, and here’s a gem from the yellowed old book I read. It’s in the forematter, on the right-hand page facing the copyright and printing editions information.

Note in East of Eden

Note from John Steinbeck to Pascal Covici

Thanks B., my son, for pressing me to read this grand classic novel!

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6 thoughts on “East of Eden (review)

  1. I shared this on facebook–loved the quotes!

    There’s so much depth in the old classics–but it takes a patient reader to get into a past-century frame of mind to explore the fathoms. I think being a lover of poetry, being trained (and it does take training!) to read slowly and deeply, is a great aid to developing that patience. One of the reasons I am a big advocate for good, skilled teaching of poetry to young people.

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  2. Thanks, Tracy! I agree about patience. I was surprised at my impatience when reading this, especially at the start of the book. However, when I just let myself sink into Steinbeck’s wonderful way with words I started to really enjoy it. There are many poetic passages in this.

    One of the reasons I challenge myself to review the books I read is because it forces me to pay attention. I still need more discipline in this, though. It’s too easy to get swept away by the plot and then come back and not know exactly when and where the story took place, the relationship of the people to each other etc. And discovering these things later (especially if one is reading in ebook format) can take some doing. Some books need to be read twice, or maybe better said, some readers need to read books twice!

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    • Fascinating, that you find it more difficult to pay close attention when you’re using an e-reader. I wonder if many others have experienced the same. I notice that I’m more “impatient” with electronic media than with the old-fashioned kind of paper and ink.

      I think that everyone notices things in a second & third reading that they don’t in the first. Or even in the 20th reading–there are many books of the Bible that I’ve read dozens of times; and still, every time I read, I catch something new. I generally get into multiple readings of every book I’ve deeply respected and enjoyed–and poems, for sure, always get a minimum of 3 readings if they’ve touched me in any way.

      Have you noticed a difference in the way poetry effects you in an e-format as opposed to printed? I’m going to pay attention to what happens to me in various media.

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      • Tracy, what I should say about e-reader reading is not so much that I don’t discover things in the first place, but I have trouble finding them again later–unless I bookmark them. I find when I read (paper book or on an e-device) I only become aware that something is significant a while after I’ve read the passage, in retrospect, so to speak.

        Now e-books have a search facility. So if you remember specific words that occurred in the passage you want to re-read, it’s easier to find them than with a paper book. But you can’t depend on your memory that the passage you want is on the right-hand side of the page, about two thirds of the way through the book… because there’s no such thing!

        I have found poetry e-books a great disappointment. They are not formatted consistently. Some are formatted well for Kindle, but many aren’t with, for example, no indents of lines where they occur in print version. Sometimes lines are all double-spaced so it’s hard to tell where the stanza breaks come. Plus there’s no pleasure of viewing the page on its own with its white space and the aesthetic of holding a beautiful poetry book in your hands (for poetry books are usually works of art in their own way). Pdf e-versions are a bit better, in that they keep their page differentiation. But for PDFs, I’ve found that the print is often too small, and I have to change the orientation (view the page horizontally vs. vertically) in order to make out the type. If I have the choice, I choose the paper poetry book over the e-version any day!

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      • Interesting–

        I’ve been thinking about the new technologies, and whether e-versions will, in fact, “replace” print versions of literature. I’m beginning to think that the electronic media and the internet have uses and for some applications have advantages over print (cheaper, lighter), but that in many ways, there really is no replacement for the material and aesthetic art of printing.

        It’s sort of like when scientists first discovered that they could isolate nutrients and make pills out of them–Ken remembers that educated people were predicting in all serious that it wouldn’t be long, and people would get all of their nutrients from pills–food as we know it would disappear! (But they forgot to consider the pleasure of EATING, and that people are reluctant to give up that which is inherently pleasurable and good).

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  3. I agree with you Tracy. I think it will be a long time before physical books are replaced. (Though I am very thankful for my e-reader when I go on holiday and can take a library with me in a few ounces!)

    Ha! How boring to eat pills!

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