I was once asked to name 3 texts– whether books, film, music or otherwise– which are meaningful to me. After spending too much time excitedly mulling over the idea, I thought I'd share my answer here on the blog as well. I'm avoiding formative texts I've discussed elsewhere, like Underworld, Anna Karenina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Radiation City, Terrence Malick or any of the many films I've written about here. I'm also avoiding non-fiction because I'm more interested in advocating for art than information. Information speaks for itself, but Art elevates us to something higher. Each of the following represents a full, rich experience which has elevated how I see. Here goes.
3. East of Eden
John Steinbeck, 1952. 612pp.
Why read the old books?
Steinbeck's East of Eden paints a reality we can feel in the marrow of our bones. The brushstroke that is his pen paints the truth of his experience and that of turn-of-the-century rural America with deep-rooted thoughtfulness, a probing consideration of the grit, texture and light that was once oh-so-familiar, by someone who was there. His pen knows the details and lived-in psyche of a certain breed of American experience that a writer now, for all their historocity and enlightened perspectives, will fail to comprehend. We must preserve the earlier works, and value them for what they do, rather than what they don't do. If we don't know our past, how can we build a future?
Steinbeck's concerns are not primarily historical or political, but human. His interests transcend time and culture. He observed the goings-on around him with undeniable and clear-eyed care, and the insights one gains from reading East of Eden are as enriching toward deepening our worldview as any of the best philosophy or religious texts. Go ahead and pull it off the shelf. Read Chapter Thirteen– don't worry, it doesn't spoil anything. Read it while alone, and dare yourself to look at today's world with the same eyes afterwards. For me it's the chapters involving the conversations between Sam, Lee and Adam that I'll carry with me forever. Do you remember when they talk about naming the children? The kindness and infinite depth of their discourse? Or his understanding of Cathy, probably the most nuanced exploration of implacable evil and the question of confronting it that I've found in art. This is why you read classic literature instead of Tweets of headlines of articles. This is why you turn pages instead of send texts and play Candy Crush.
Many years ago, I was riding a 41 home and asked the young-ish looking businessman seated next to me what he was reading. He explained that he made a point of returning to East of Eden every five years or so, because it enriched his sight and kept him on course. It seemed to expand each time he read it too, telling him something about himself, and about the America we come from. I remember a quiet passion in his demeanor; he had a father's knowledge that gentle persuasion will work better than vociferous insistence. He didn't tell me to read the book. He simply shared what it did for him. I told him I'd check it out sometime. It may have taken me over a decade to make good on that promise, but here I am, thanking a man whose name I don't know, whose appearance I've forgotten, whom I remember only by their poise and words. The book was everything you said it would be. I do all I can do now, which is pass the torch along.
Stay tuned for the countdown!