Good and Evil, East of Eden

Among the many titles for this chapter of my life, “The Year of Nonfiction Exploration” might be one of the most apt. I’ve been through reading phrases over the course of my life both by genre and author. I had my Boxcar Kids, my Nancy Drew,my adolescent science fiction, my L.M. Montgomery, and my John Grisham phases all before entering high school. Then there was my love of dystopian and 18th century British novels in high school, F. Scott Fitzgerald in college, and the books I made my students read when I played teacher. . After a lifetime of fiction, I took a short break from heading altogether than plunged into the depths of non-fiction this year.

This year I have read for knowledge and intellectual growth, challenging myself to grow in my own understanding of current events, psychology, finances, food, and technology. And somehow, after all of that learning and information, I remembered that I needed to take a break and re-immerse myself into some fiction. Not some light and fluffy Twilight or Hunger Games type fiction, but real, sink-your-teeth-into-it-until-it-hurts fiction. So, while I was re-shelving books on library duty last weekend feeling homesick for California, I picked up John Steinbeck’s East of EdenI’d read his most famous novel, Grapes of Wrath, as a junior in high school, and wanted to see what I’d bring to the reading after a few years had passed.

Oddly enough, the thing that struck me the most in reading Steinbeck this time were the parallels I see to Faulkner’s work.  Ever since trying to pick up Absalom, Absalom in high school I have carried a distaste for Faulkner and his work. There is much that is foreign and twisted in his elaborate sentences and jumbled up narratives. He asks us to experience the struggle of the South as we hear of family dynasties, race politics, and poor white families who try to work the land in order to continue living a miserable life. East of Eden carries a hint of these tales even with its setting near Salinas, CA. There are complex family relationships, a fight between good and evil, and always, always, the presence of wealth and poverty pushing the plot forward. I slammed through 602 pages of the book in four days, staying up past my bedtime, immersed in a plot filled with whores, dueling brothers, and immigrants finding their place as key figures in the lives of rich white men. The most profound line for me from the whole text? It’s found at the end of the first chapter in the final section,

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing in the world is.”

What was the last book you really immersed yourself in? Did it satisfy you like a Thanksgiving dinner, or leave you wanting more? Fiction or non-fiction, and why?

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