Recommended by Ben Bartlett
I am ashamed to say that East of Eden is my first Steinbeck novel. My young and ignorant failed attempt at Of Mice and Men soured me for years, and lately, with rising unemployment numbers and Southern droughts I’ve resisted his depression era novels. East of Eden, however, is far more important than I could have imagined, and is another in the line of books that justify this project for me.
This Cain and Abel story embodies local and temporal themes while demonstrating immortal ones as well. The clashes between Cal and Aaron, embodying two varied but recognizable personalities from the same town, are as old as the Bible stories they reflect, and as enduring as the Montagues and Capulets.
This novel’s achievement is the sense of place it creates. The plot at times seems only an excuse for detailed passages on Salinas Valley and its inhabitants that Steinbeck weaves in and out the action. It is an enviable skill that Steinbeck possesses, so aware and confident of his location that it emanates through the text like a poetic travel book. I’ve driven through Salinas hundreds of times and while it doesn’t seem as interesting or complex as Steinbeck describes it – neither in culture nor landscape – the Salinas of East Eden is fascinating and intricate and full of complex beauty. But I don’t know the place very well, I only know there is nothing I could write to bring life to a specific place and there are very few people I have ever read who could. Read East of Eden to experience place in its grandest sense, just don’t wait as long as I did.