In my youth, there were 3 separate but intertwined themes, all of which weighed heavily against and stole from the other. The first would have been an inordinate amount of substance abuse; the second was The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; and the third happened to be The Wall, that seemingly catch-all type album from ’79 by Pink Floyd, and many would later just claim it was by Roger Waters. However any of them happened, and in whatever order, it is interesting that the book and the album both centered around a borderline mentality, and in a way- were both dramatic works. The other, well… that was just a part of it that came with being young.
In time, I outgrew the booze and other recreational materials; but have held onto, in limited amounts, the book and the album. Although I have tried, to go back as it were, and enjoy them, it is an impossibility, with or without the mind altering elements. It seems that, upon a great amount of retrospection, that youth was the greatest mind altering element, with it having the propensity to make the future seem as if it were an escape able dream… if only we refused to pass through its graduation, and accept the fate.
But, as things must go, the future will not be put off; it insists that we pay attention to it. More so, the future demands that we not only acknowledge its dominance over us, but that some homage be paid unto it, with our very lifeblood. And, in so doing, we give ourselves over to it; to its damning effects; to the life altering and ultimately life ending processes of the future; and we are powerless to stop it once the reality has been accepted. And, sooner or later, the reality is always accepted.
In this mindset, I decided to read a book this week. I pretend to be always reading, and I usually am, but it is rarely in the company of a book these days. At length, I find myself in a journal, or periodical of some sorts, making notes here and there, and then citing the source. But, I rarely read… I mean, to read is well … well, it’s different than just skimming words, and taking notes. As I mentioned previous, reading, when done right, is akin to watching in or even of performing in a dramatic work. Just as my 17 year old self could absolutely identify with Holden as he made his way across those several days in that book, the reading becomes a part of you, and stays with you.
For this reason, and because I’m turning 42, I wanted to try and remember something of what it felt like to still be at that age, at the age when carelessness is about to give way to responsibility, but you just don’t know it yet, and so, you enjoy the last year or two before adulthood. I picked up my copy of Salinger’s work, and began at the beginning. And… I struggled through about 10 pages, and then put it down. I didn’t put the book up. No, I left it out. I didn’t presume that I was finished with it, but I was. Two days later, I placed the volume back in the dust jacket, and back in the blank spot in that bookcase.
As it would appear, I could no longer be a part of the story. I was sad at the time of that reckoning, and I am saddened now as I type the words. A story which easily played well for 5 or more years of my life… now, seemed broken, and the words no longer fit. The colors did not spring from the page, and I couldn’t smell the chilly air at Pencey Prep on that Sunday afternoon.
The question then became, which book, if any, should I choose? Without thinking, I pulled down the big binding of #Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This book, is the opposite of The Catcher in the Rye. As a 16 or 17 year old, I had read it (I had tried to read it), yet never made it all the way through successfully. That is to say, that I never fully appreciated the book as a stand-a-lone. The reason, known to me now, possibly occurring 10 or so years ago, is that “I”, at 17, was simply too young and inexperienced to appreciate the complexity of the novel. It is not something I think, that is meant to be taken in and digested completely by adolescence. Instead, this work, which still plays as a dramatic work off of the pages, requires a depth and investment in living before the images described actually come to life.
East of Eden is about growing old, and in some way- accepting the journey for what it is. We are neither perfect nor are we beautiful as we age. Indeed, at times, quite the opposite is true. Age is the magnifier that does not discriminate. Every wrinkle, every fault, every hateful action perpetrated in our youth is on display and at times compounded as we age. This- all for our individual growth and a betterment of the human species as a whole.
Adam and Kate, Samuel and Lee, the Boys, … a short visit to Salinas, and an actual walking tour that you can take in person ( I did it this last summer), complete with an honorable mention of the several streets and some business’ which at least the buildings still exist. These are the basis of the novel, these are reality, and is the writing that I blame on Steinbeck, calling it “non-fictional fiction”. The stories, this one most especially, are based in the undeniable humanity of the characters. They all grew old; some of them learned, some of them neglected to see the lessons; they died. The unabashed realism is something that is not glossed over in the eyes of the reader.
My birthday, and the book chosen to read, are no mistake. They both age together, and in real time. I can attest to the fact that the characters described, whether fictional or not, are long ago dead. Just as poignantly, the town of Salinas, no longer a town but a bona fide City, is different now than it was when I knew it best 20 years ago. It is certainly different than when the Trask family was established, and began the story, now a century or more in the past.
While Salinger might have chronicled some aspects of youth, battles waged during that time; East of Eden proves that although immortal in theory, the characters which will stand the test of an individual lifetime are not immune from the physical death which will overcome the reader, and this is the difference in the two. I found in one volume, a mirror which reflected a person I no longer knew. Through the other book, a mirror shown the likeness of a boy who at first did not understand- though who was now grown into a man who understood, but more importantly… who accepted the fate of the living words in literature. And in so doing, the lives that are described within– and without– the bindings.