The Greatest American Novel “What does the title mean? Why did you choose it?” asked the reporter from the Greenville, SC News.
Her story about my book, No Gold Stars, was almost finished, almost ready to revise.
“I’ve read the first 14 chapters,” she told me. I could tell she’d hoped telling me that would prompt me to tell her about my title, that it wasn’t picked at random.
“On the last page, you’ll find the answer,” I told her. Even that seemed to me to be a hint I shouldn’t have offered.
She switched topics, asked about how difficult it was to teach students at Sterling. I confessed that they were the teachers, that it took me a while to learn from them. “And that happened because you were put in jail?”
Although the answer was yes, I was amused. Without finishing my book, she wouldn’t be able to put the impact of my arrest in its proper context. I offered her my home phone number. “Call me at night after you’ve read the book. Your questions will answer themselves; I know you’ll have new ones.”
Lots of them. I was sure of that.
“Please call me as soon as you know when you’re coming to Greenville.” Without saying that it wouldn’t be before she’d read the final chapter, I promised I would.
And I meant to keep that promise, the first of two I would make that day. The other had to do with Steinbeck’s East of Eden and with a message in response to my post the day before (What I Heard Our Rabbi Say). That message included this comment:
...East of Eden was the great American Novel. It spans time from the Civil War to WWI, it spans the country from New England to California, at its very kernel is the once Biblical truth that everyone must understand if the world is ever to become blessed.
I knew I had to read East of Eden again. Before I had missed the significance of its ties to the Talmud, those midrashim (interpretations) that explain it. One of the most central involves Cain and Abel and tinmshel, the concept that translates to “Thou mayest,” as in “Thou Mayest choose not to do evil” as if the only reason one fails to control an impulse is their unwillingness to choose not to.
Steinbeck understood. To choose to do evil is a human proclivity, it’s a temptation as old as the seed of Adam. East of Eden restates the need to decide to resist in very human terms, terms so profound that the book is a must to re-read.
Or, as I told the Greenville reporter, a book you don’t (or can’t) read just part of.
B. Koplen 10/26/11
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