I have a tattered, taped-up copy of East of Eden that I’ve read somewhere around ten to twelve times. Whenever people ask me my favorite book, I’m quick and decisive: East of Eden. My favorite American author? John Steinbeck. These are my ready made answers to the inquiries English majors are used to: You were an English major? Oh, cool, what’s your favorite book? And for a long time I thought these answers were true and honest. I’ve never felt the impact of a book like I did the first time I read East of Eden in high school, and I’ve never felt so beholden to one author’s take on the world. In my first semester of seminary, my Old Testament professor slammed Steinbeck’s admittedly shoddy translation of the Hebrew word timshel and it pissed me off. East of Eden is my favorite book.
I’m reading East of Eden again now, seven years since I first cracked its 602 pages. I was reading on the porch of our townhouse last week and my neighbor walked outside. He asked what I was reading and I told him. He raised an eyebrow and asked what I thought so far, and I almost gave him my rote response. But I stopped to actually think about the question instead and came up with something that surprised me:
“You know,” I said, “I’ve read this book ten times and each time I like it less but love it more.”
I’m annoyed with the book’s dichotomous exploration of morality and especially how that exploration is channeled through some pretty explicit sexism. Kate is evil, Kate is a monster, you’re bitter over your second divorce, okay we get it. I’m tired of its flashy HERE IS WISDOM aura wrapped in THIS STORY IS A RETELLING OF GENESIS allegory. I’m seriously frustrated by the novel’s rugged individualism (“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men”) and the short, essay-like chapters scattered throughout. East of Eden is a mess.
But still, something in me is not thwarted by my objections. I can’t believe I felt the book was perfect in high school, but that’s exactly why I can’t hate it and why I love it. I’m different now (hardly an overstatement), and I read through a different lens. But these yellowed pages captured something of who I was then, or at least let me capture a real sense of myself. Back then, I needed the blatant WISDOM and the overt BIBLICAL ALLEGORY because the other wells I drew from ran dry. I was in no mood to figure it out for myself.
I still think East of Eden holds some of the most beautiful passages in American literature—for all of its conspicuousness, there are refined moments of subtlety. I still love this book for its book-ness, for the way the words sound and the longing in its most crucial scenes. But let me borrow its didactic, all-caps tone to tell you exactly why I love East of Eden: This book is a mess. SO AM I.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.