Recently I texted a buddy about the void in my life after having finished one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. His response was, “That, is what great literature is all about!”

Being deeply immersed in a great book is what reading’s all about. The book was East of Eden by John Steinbeck and without a doubt it’s at, or very near, the top of my list. I actually listened to it seven years ago and I was conflicted, being somewhat overwhelmed by the story. I probably wasn’t ready for it’s depth, and the unflinching exploration of human nature and the tension between good and evil. I felt like I was reading the book for the first time.

I now feel it’s one of the few novels that lives up to the oft-used description, “epic, sweeping, grand in scope.” And I will echo the publisher’s summary of a “sprawling and often brutal novel.” This book will tear your heart out of your chest and stomp on it. And then put it back in and bring it slowly back to life.

As the title alludes, there is comparison to the story of Cain and Abel that runs throughout the book. Spanning multiple generations from the Civil War to World War I, Steinbeck weaves together a masterful tale of the time period of westward expansion while still telling a deeply personal and meaningful story. The writing is excellent. The humor is simple and witty. Character development is 11/10.

Steinbeck perfectly describes the simple beauties of life, while still addressing the most complex and demanding questions that humanity faces – heart-wrenching conflict and rewarding resolution.

The character who represents the devil in the story is pure evil – at times so awful I had to push pause and take a break before I could resume. It isn’t a story for the faint of heart and some may find the content uncomfortable. But these are the realities we are faced with on our journey through life, and I think Steinbeck understood that.

I think most readers will struggle to decide whether Lee or Samuel is their favorite character. I still haven’t been able to make that choice. But nothing made me happier than to hear their conversations.

And while I was sad to see it end, everything came together well.

What I loved most was the ability of Steinbeck to weave the philosophy of good and evil into the story in a way that makes it relevant to you and me today. Another friend of mine wrote, “Although I haven’t read the book again start to finish, I have highlighted so many insights in my hard copy that I return to the book frequently. It’s like my life’s manual.”

Most people who love this book will speak fondly of the phrase, “thou mayest.” In a follow up to a previous discussion in the book, Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant, discusses his ten year exploration of the story of Cain and Abel. Lee took the sixteen verses from the fourth chapter of Genesis to his Chinese elders where they discussed at length God’s instructions to Cain. In summary, Lee makes the following statement.

“Don’t you see? The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”

When asked why this is important, Lee responds, “Now, there are many millions on their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

I absolutely love this insight from Steinbeck. “Timshel” gives us a choice on how we live our lives and the power to rise no matter what our past looks like.

One more thought from Lee. “This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attached and never destroyed – because ‘Thou mayest.’”

I try never to oversell a book to create unrealistic expectations. I recognize that you may not agree with my assessment. I just love Steinbeck’s ability to make you think. I have a tendency to get caught up in the “weakness and filth” that seems to surround us everywhere. But this insight helps me to see the world a little more clearly and even with a little more hope.

If you’ve had a chance to read this masterpiece, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If not, I’d highly recommend you give it a read!

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