One of my many ways to judge a book is by keeping track of how much time it takes me to read it. Of course, it’s a flawed system, but it does give a sense of value to a book, it underlines strong elements in a novel.
East of Eden took me one day to read. Yes, just one day. And this isn’t a short novel. It stands at over 600 pages long, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. This happens on rare occasions. I’m usually too restless to read for more than one or two hours, but in the case of this novel…
This is Steinbeck’s favorite novel, and yet, it didn’t attract as much attention or acclaim as the author would have wished. I tend to disagree with the critics – East of Eden is a wonderful portrayal of life just happening, elemental and profound, and yet simple. The numerous characters in the novel interact with each other, fall in love, make babies, fight or die with a sense of the mundane echoing through the pages.
And this sense, this hopelessness, is ever more present as we progress through the story, as we make sense of things, as we realize that this novel is not a novel about heroes or martyrs or villains. It’s just a story about people, and I strenuously believe that readers are always looking for the human element in a story; we all want to catch a glimpse of another person living and breathing, we want to empathize with another person, to understand motives and beliefs other than our own. It’s a way of absorbing experience and knowledge, and thus East of Eden is a perfect example of how human nature reacts in an array of circumstances.
It makes for a very easy and fast read. Steinbeck’s style doesn’t get in the way of the story – everything sort of flows toward the ending in an inexorable way, like real life actually does.
The best compliment I can think of is this: Steinbeck’s novel feels like real life transpiring through the pages, of life that we can understand and appreciate or hate.