Our Reading Lives

The First Novel I Read Every Year

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Callie Ryan Brimberry

Staff Writer

Callie Ryan Brimberry is a teacher, writer, and editor in Virginia. She spends her free time leaving books on park benches and in random coffee houses hoping her margin notes read like love letters to those who’ve yet to fall in love with reading.

For the most part, I am a one-and-done reader. I can live in the pages of a book fluidly and easily, embracing the warmth and coldness it has to offer as if I created them myself. When I turn the final page, I rarely revisit the actual book itself. The words, of course, stay with me and I often find myself still living within their warmth for days on end, reconsidering and reimagining.

There are, however, a handful of books I find myself unable to resist opening over and over again. The pages of these books don’t simply offer a temporary stay as the others do. They feel different. Their words taste different. More mine. I’ve read Night by Elie Wiesel, a handful of times. And though it has only been out for a year, I’ve read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi twice and feel compelled to revisit it already. The Princess Bride by William Goldman is simply a guilty—and beautifully versed—pleasure. But, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is the only novel I read religiously each year. I’ve been asked why many times, and as my fingers drum the endless sticky notes that fill the pages of my copy and my fingers trace the words I’ve been underlining for years, I can only answer instinctually: because I have to. It is necessity more than habit. Nourishment more than craving.

It is odd to feel so dependent on a novel that is essentially about choice. The concept of timshel, or “thou mayest,” guides the reader through the layers of judgement and understanding the characters’ choices illicit. The lines between good and evil are clear one moment and murky the next. The characters both lovely and horrid, and always realistic. They are always a little bit of someone we know, someone we love, and someone we loathe. The appeal, though uncomfortable, is that the characters are always a little bit of us. Beyond the pages is the judgment and understanding the reader reserves for their own choices and the consequences they bring. Perhaps, it is the notion of control over our choices that make this novel my favorite way to begin a new year: with earnest hope and the best intentions to be better than I was the day before. Mostly, I think I long for the reminder that there is always a way to be good again.

“But I have a 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’.”