Category Archives: Classics

A Return to U.S. classics: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

This year, as I’ve reduced my participation in social media and blog writing, I’ve increased and changed the focus of my reading. I established this blog to mainly talk about science fiction and fantasy books with a sociological imagination. However, I’ve found that my reading habits have shifted some this year. My interests have always waxed and waned so I’m sure that I’ll return to reading science fiction and fantasy again. (In fact, I did read one piece of fantasy, an incomplete work by J. R. R. Tolkien where he started an epic, Arthurian poem using alliterative verse. It was fascinating. I want to learn more about Old English and a have a desire to reread The Lord of the Rings again.)

First, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway looks at the impacts of World War I without having the characters directly discuss or even think about the war much. Reading this allowed me to think about how when traumatic events happen, they may impact people so much that they no longer talk about the event. They may actively try to avoid thinking about it while still facing the direct and indirect effects of said event. In turn, this attempt at trying to ignore the pain may intensify problems like alcoholism or risk-taking.

Then, I had stumbled across Eudora Welty’s photography at our local art museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art. The ethereal nature of the photography, much set in southern states, spoke to me in a way that made me curious about her writing. I decided to read The Optimist’s Daughter since it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. The book was psychologically powerful and impacted my thinking about the past, memories, and letting go.

On a recommendation, the next book I read was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It really seems to be an human soul locked in novel form. It took me a month to read it since I was busy at work. But it was worth it.  It truly is a masterpiece. He was writing about the upheaval occurring in the United States around the time of World War I, with a primary focus on the Salinas Valley in California. (This book was helpful for me, as I can relate to themes of rapid social change inspired by changes in technology and globalization.)

The extremely short version of what the book expands on is the idea that human beings have a choice to be good or evil. It isn’t all destiny, biology (nature), or even culture (nurture). The characters debate a section in the Book of Genesis  related to the Cain and Able story, particularly the meaning of the Hebrew word, “Timshel,” in different translations of the Bible. The characters explore meaning of this story and word together across time, deciding that “Timshel” means, “Thou mayest.”  Individuals have a choice. They also discuss how Cain was marked not to be harmed, despite the terrible, murderous act he committed.

Also, some lessons that I found embedded in the book were: (1) humans deserve the truth of things, even when it may hurt them, (2) people should be trying to see the truth of situations, other people, and themselves, even when painful, (3) words have power to transform people, and (4) people (and horses) deserve to get names to live up to. We should hope for the best but be prepared to see what is. Many of the characters do not see themselves or others clearly, and it leads many of them into dire situations or even death. The surviving characters at the end, on the other hand, grapple with the problematic aspects of their personalities and delusions. When thoughtful people get together to discuss their problems, it makes them better. In the middle of the book, Lee says:

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 attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’ (302).

I particularly really liked one line of dialogue: “‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good, is that it?” (583) Finally, as I was reading, I wondered what Steinbeck would make of fake news sites and people intentionally misleading other people and what kind of treatment he’d give it.

Now, I’m reading sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest on how new technologies are changing social movements and our lives.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Psychology, Sociology, Technology

“Crime and Punishment”

[Spoilers alert.  But then, you probably already know the plot of this one.]

“‘Brother, what are you saying?’ Dunia cried out in despair, ‘You have shed human blood.’

‘Which they all shed,’ he interrupted, almost frantic.

‘Which cascades, and always has, down upon the earth like a waterfall, which they pour like champagne, and for which they are crowned on the Capitoline and called the benefactors of mankind…’” (499).

While I’ve mainly been reviewing science fiction and fantasy, I read many other types of books including “classic” literature.  For years, my spouse, who happens to be a Russophile, has recommended “Crime and Punishment” to me.  In all honesty, I barely knew anything going into the book, other than it’s about a murderer and the criminal justice system in Russia during the 1800s.  I happened to read the translation by Sidney Monas for no better reason than it was at the library.  Although this novel is from the 1800s, it remains relevant for analysis today.

The focus of this blog is the intersection of books, culture, and sociology.  “Crime and Punishment” was both a challenging and rewarding read for me, and I think that it’d be a good book for discussing many topics in an introduction to sociology class.  It’d be useful for comparing and contrasting the judicial system in the US today with that of Russia in the 1800s.  For example, what is true punishment?  Is rehabilitation possible?  It’d also be a useful book for discussing early field of psychology in terms of looking at obsession.  Does a psychological, sociological, or religious framework work better for discussing why people commit crimes?

It’d also be an excellent book for considering how the structure of the society around the characters leads to feelings of alienation from themselves, others, and society at large.  Since “Crime and Punishment” looks at the rapid social changes happening in the period, it be a great way of discussing the concept of anomie.  There is a sense of normlessness in the society that leads to many people attempting to commit suicide.  This book was published before Durkheim’s work on called “Suicide,” but it represents many of the ideas well.  It’d be possible to relate some of these ideas to our time period, too.  With rapid globalization, changing technologies, and many fluctuating social norms, people today may also be inclined to alienation.  If you are interested in reading more on this anomie and globalization, there are some interesting articles in this archive of The Global Sociology Blog.

Raskolnikov, the main character, and murderer, cites many reasons for his murder of a pawnbroker.  He murders her sister, too, when she returns too early while the murder is in progress.  The rest of the book is an exploration of what thoughts and theories led the character to commit these heinous acts.  Additionally, the novel is overtly religious.  It seems as if Dostoyevsky was making the argument that in a period of uncertainty and disorder that individuals need something to give their life meaning.  At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov starts to feel love for another character, Sonia, that also connects to Christianity.  After reading the book, I don’t feel that he was necessarily making the argument that religion is “real” but that it is important for people.  I’d love to hear what someone else thinks about this topic.

Finally, the novel would be great to illustrate social inequalities.  Social class is addressed extensively in the book, as well as gender.  Additionally, students might notice how there are threads of anti-semitism by some of the characters in the book.  Tensions between characters of different ethnicities is apparent, too.  “Crime and Punishment” is an emotionally challenging read, but it is a riveting book of both psychological and sociological importance.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Sociology