Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

What is your most life-changing book suggestion?

Sincerely,
Looking for My Butterfly Moment

Dear LFMBM,

I appreciate your articulation. People often inquire about others’ favorite books, but to ask about one’s most life-changing suggestion, with the intention of stimulating that ‘butterfly moment,’ well, that is a very intentional inquiry.

To give a brief shout-out to some honorable mentions, I have to give credit to Johnathan Rand’s American Chillers for instilling in me a passion for literature and the inspiration to write my own stories. I owe my identity as a writer to those books. I am also a huge fan of Scott O’Dell’s The Black Pearl, which I read in middle school. I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story, and The Black Pearl had all the macabre trappings of adventure, danger, and monsters that enticed me so much as a boy. It heightened my awareness for what constitutes a good story in life, and I guess I’ve been trying to seek out those “good story” experiences ever since. And finally—it goes without saying, but it shouldn’t—the Good Book, the Bible.

But the books that have had the biggest impact on me are the ones I analyzed in English classes. I think any book, when dissected intellectually, is capable of providing butterfly moments. Nothing opens up your appreciation for a text like a thorough exegesis. John Steinbeck became my go-to guy after a few encounters in high school, so by my senior year I elected to write my Senior Literature AP final paper on East of Eden.

I hope you’re not bummed out, LFMBM. I realize there’s a good chance you’ve read East of Eden before, and maybe you even turned the final page with an indifferent shrug. But I recommend reading it again. Reading that book slowly and carefully, coming up with a thesis, and writing that paper was the most in-depth study of a book I’ve ever undertaken. It truly changed my life. Not even in my college English courses was that level of scrutiny matched. I don’t mean that as a slight to my professors; I’ve just never encountered a book that elicited so much investment and affected my worldview the way East of Eden did.

In case you’re not familiar with one of the greatest authors of all time’s greatest books ever written, it’s essentially a modern-day (read: 1910s) retelling of the Cain and Abel story. Forgive my gross oversimplification.

So what makes East of Eden so life-changing? For me, the big theme that stood out was timshel, a Hebrew word translated to mean “thou mayest” and symbolic of the concept of free will. Humankind is not “compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin, but rather has the power to choose.” Everyone knows the plot points of the Cain and Abel story, but I’d wager few outside of us East of Eden-ers have ever felt sympathy for the beastly-tempered Cain. But what if you found out Cain really struggled to give what was asked of him? Maybe offerings weren’t his strong suit. The story doesn’t talk about Abel much; there’s no need. Doing good comes natural to Abel. What lesson are we to glean from that?

“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out,” laments Paul in Romans 7. “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” That’s Cal Trask in East of Eden. That’s Cain in the Bible. More importantly, that’s us. But East of Eden also has a profound message of hope: that God created us with the capability to choose good, with a fresh chance coming after each failure.

East of Eden also taught me a lot about the value of moderation. On a spiritual level, we are better equipped to navigate and impact this fallen world with a sense of familiarity and understanding of its darkness. You won’t be much help to an alcoholic if you’ve never had a drink, and you won’t affect the opinions of a close-minded racist if you don’t establish some common ground first. If you really want to influence others and bring about positive change, you need to garner respect and credibility in the eyes of your influencees first, and that may require getting your hands dirty. If not, they won’t take you seriously.

Aron Trask, whose idealistic mind blocks out wicked thoughts, would’ve been a great student at Bob Jones University. I understand the strategy of avoiding “bad” influences at all costs in order to stay on the straight and narrow. But it’s a flawed approach that leaves its advocates shell-shocked to depravity and ill-equipped to redeem it. Perhaps I’m just a product of my institution, but East of Eden’s message closely echoes Calvin’s “agents of renewal” rhetoric. Cal’s butterfly moment was realizing he wasn’t created a beast, doomed to repeat his shortcomings over and over again for life, but rather that he was well-positioned to evaluate the world’s shortcomings and help others through theirs. We can use our flaws to empathize with others.

Maybe you knew all this already, LFMBM, but hopefully I’ve managed to drum up some interest in a re-read at least. It’s certainly worth it. I’ll close with one of the book’s best lines:

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.
-John Steinbeck

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