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Blog – Posted on Monday, Dec 14

The 15 Best John Steinbeck Books Everyone Should Read

John Steinbeck’s books possess that ever-elusive quality of timelessness. Ecologically conscious before the urgency of climate change was widely discussed, but tender in its understanding of humankind’s many shortcomings, this literary giant’s work feels breathtakingly current in the present moment. 

Much of Steinbeck’s work takes place in the sun-drenched Salinas valley in California (now aptly known as ‘Steinbeck Country’), and is imbued with a deep connection to the natural world. Portraying a side of California far removed from the glamorized depictions encountered in popular culture, Steinbeck writes about ordinary people: flawed, often morally dubious, always striving, sometimes despairing communities of misfits, migrants, and working people struggling through life.   

Always an experimenter, Steinbeck wrote in many forms: novellas, epic novels, short stories, and even nonfiction. But if we had to choose a defining characteristic that unites all of his writing, it would have to be its undisputedly moral core. The Nobel-Prize-winning author consistently asked questions about right and wrong, and found fascinating subject matter in the many subtle shades of humanity’s good and evil.

If you’re wondering where to start with this writer’s strong, clean prose, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 best John Steinbeck books. 

1. East of Eden (1952)

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This 1952 novel is a book of Biblical scope and intensity. In telling the multi-generational stories of the Hamilton and Trask families, Steinbeck also tells the story of the Salinas valley, observed from afar as it changes with the passage of time. How do you know, the book asks, if you’re meant to be a good or a bad person? Is it your fate to be one or the other? Is there any point in trying to assume control of your life? As the protagonists of this expansive masterpiece (which Steinbeck himself considered his magnum opus) find themselves enacting the actions of Adam and Eve and Abel and Cain, the reader is swept along by a powerful and compassionate narrative that leaves them certain they’re in the presence of a truly great mind. In the great whirl of East of Eden, we’re gifted that breathtaking sense of seeing humanity in bird’s eye view: suddenly small, ever-striving, and deeply affecting.

Favorite quote: “All great and precious things are lonely.”

2. The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

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Set during the Great Depression, this classic historical fiction novel has a tumultuous past: banned from a number of schools and libraries when first published, it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and sell more than 15 million copies. The story follows the Joads, a poor family of farm workers from Oklahoma, as they make a long and desperate journey west in pursuit of work. In a season of unforgiving drought, farm workers like the Joads find themselves struggling for food, non exploitative labor, and simple dignity. Steinbeck’s unassuming, unflinching, and lyrical work is essential reading not just for American readers, but anyone with a heart  — it’s no wonder this novel often comes up in lists recommending the best books of all time.

Favorite quote: The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants.”

3. The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)

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The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck’s final novel. It takes place in a small East Coast town, where Ethan Allen Hawley must come to terms with his personal failings, as well as the moral cost inherent in ‘rising’ in the world. Reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s plays, this novel conducts an unsettling search into the dark corners of the human soul, uncovering an inevitable sense of decline, and a disheartening discrepancy between the world’s appearance and the seedy nature of its true workings. Weighed down by his family’s once glorious past and their ambitious expectations, Ethan feels pressured in his every move. As this sombre novel walks the line between tragedy and hope, readers find themselves feeling both alienated from and reconnected to their own humanity.

Favorite quote: “Does anyone ever know even the outer fringe of another?”

4. Of Mice and Men (1937)

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Another of Steinbeck’s popular works regularly taught in schools, this heartbreaking novella takes us back to California in the years of the Great Depression. Here, two farm workers, Lennie and George, chase their dream of owning a piece of land so they can settle down in peace. But childlike and physically powerful Lennie, whose only wish is to keep pet rabbits so he can stroke their soft fur, unwittingly poses difficulties for him and his protective friend. This deeply affecting story about friendship, loneliness, and hope is at once gentle and crushing, and will remain with you long after you’ve turned the final page. 

Favorite quote: “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.”

5. Cannery Row (1945)

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This short novel dispenses with the necessities of conventional narrative arcs. Instead, its purpose is impressionistic: to convey, in around 150 pages, the sense of belonging to a community — a very specific kind of community rooted in the author’s memories of his Californian upbringing. You might not think that a tale about a grocery store owner, a biologist, a brothel owner, some drunks, prostitutes, and a few lost souls in a small Californian town would move you. But you would be wrong. Lit by the long shadows of Steinbeck’s discerning narration, this humble book touches on something profound, and will leave readers sinking into melancholy-tinged nostalgia for a past that isn’t even their own.

Favorite quote: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962)

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“Literary classics about the American road trip” seems to be a category that generally points people to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But we think you’ll have a more temperate, contemplative, and soothing time if you hitch a ride with Steinbeck and his French poodle, Charley. On the road from California to Maine, Steinbeck shares his wise, keenly observed thoughts about America, its people, landscapes, future and past. This masterclass in writing nonfiction provides its readers with a great writer’s sensitive insights, as well as a gentle push to venture forward into the world with curiosity and openness. Bonus points for the poodle!

Favorite quote: “They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”

7. Sweet Thursday (1954)

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Sweet Thursday takes us back to the world of Cannery Row — but this time, our small-town visit centers around a romance, so the pace picks up quite significantly. Though sequels often disappoint, this short book is an exception: Steinbeck returns to some familiar characters with a wholesome fondness, and pays testament to the tight bonds of a small town community. Among many mishaps and accidents, the nobly well-intentioned residents of this book shine through, charming readers.

Favorite quote: “Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.”

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8. The Pastures of Heaven (1932)

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Pastures of Heaven, as the title suggests, is set in a fertile California valley; but though the valley looks like paradise, its inhabitants’ lives are far from heavenly. These twelve interconnected short stories operate as character sketches in a manner reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson, relating the pain and suffering of a wide cast of characters. Among them are a pair of sisters driven to prostitution, a woman dealing with mental health issues, a clerk and single dad doing his best, a father who tries to protect his daughter from too much, and a hardworking farmer on the fence about whether or not he should attend an execution. These heterogeneous stories, told with warmth and humor, all touch on these characters’ shared humanity.

Favorite quote: “After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone or on the lives of other people.”

9. To a God Unknown (1933)

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Another of Steinbeck’s early works, To a God Unknown testifies to Steinbeck’s powers of experimentation. The protagonist, Joseph Wayne, sets off for California with his dying father’s blessings. There, he builds a new home by a giant oak tree, a tree he comes to feel embodies his father’s spirit. After a time of prosperity, Joseph’s brothers take notice of his pagan worship of the oak, and decide to intervene. But once the tree is harmed, a period of relentless drought begins, and the family struggles to survive. This mystical and eerie book, tinged with magical realism, asks spiritual questions related to the environment: Can humans ever really control nature? Is there a higher power behind the mysterious workings of the natural world? Are humans somehow linked to the Earth?

Favorite quote: “He felt the driving rain, and heard it whipping down, pattering on the ground. He saw his hills grow dark with moisture. Then a lancing pain shot through the heart of the world. ‘I am the land,’ he said, ‘and I am the rain. The grass will grow out of me in a little while.’”

10. In Dubious Battle (1936)

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In Dubious Battle is the most overtly political of John Steinbeck's books. Set in a California valley, this is the first of the trio known as the ‘Dust Bowl’ novels (which also include Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath). As in the other two books in the group, Steinbeck zeros in on a community of disenfranchised workers — this time fruit pickers attempting to organize a labor union strike. Pulsing with empathy for the workers, this book tells a gripping, fast-paced story of rising tension, suspense, and danger. Aside from voicing serious concerns about industrial injustice and unrest, Steinbeck also conducts an insightful investigation into the ways in which human behaviour changes when people find themselves no longer acting as individuals, but as members of a group.

Favorite quote: “No more lone cries came from lone men. They moved together, looked alike. The roar was one voice, coming from many throats.”

11. The Moon Is Down (1942)

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As we’ve mentioned, experimentation runs throughout John Steinbeck’s books. And The Moon Is Down departs from the lush valleys of California, setting its story in a small, coastal town under military occupation in an unnamed European country. The National Steinbeck Center explains that this was a “propaganda novel, in support of people living under Nazi occupation during World War II”, and so the book shows how the spirit of resistance takes root in the hearts of the townspeople, and the ways in which occupation slowly seeps into their collective psyche. Suppression, Steinbeck demonstrates, creates a simmering need for freedom that is bound to manifest in action.

Favorite quote: “By 10:45 it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war was finished.”

12. The Wayward Bus (1947)

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The Wayward Bus is a close examination of a disparate group of characters who share a bus journey in post-war California’s Salinas valley. Critics often talk of the short story form as being “all middle”, and though this book is a full-length novel, its plot adheres to this philosophy: there is no single inciting incident or climax. Their ride on the bus is only a slice of the characters’ lives — all of them headed somewhere beyond it. This in-transit narrative is a completely absorbing study of the moment: what places feel like, how people’s thoughts move, and how life is comprised of small and insignificant moments.

Favorite quote:He tried to remember old times when it seemed to him that he was happy, when he had felt pure joy, and little pictures came into his mind. There was a very early morning with chill air and the sun was coming up behind the mountains and in a muddy road little gray birds were hopping. There wasn't any reason for joy, but it had been there.”

13. The Red Pony (1933)

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The Red Pony is an episodic novella. In other words, it’s a novella comprising four stories. All four focus on Jody Tiflin, a young boy living in a Salinas valley ranch. This affecting coming-of-age book sees Jody learn important, at times heartbreaking lessons about life and death. In the first story, Jody is given a red pony by his father, an animal he grows to love with all his youthful heart, but his world is shattered when misfortune strikes. Beautiful and tender, The Red Pony is an emotionally distressing book that charts the process of growing up one painful, innocence-shattering moment at a time. 

Favorite quote: “In the grey quiet mornings when the land and the brush and the houses and the trees were silver-grey and black like a photograph negative, he stole toward the barn, past the sleeping stones and the sleeping cypress tree.”

14. The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951)

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The ‘Sea of Cortez’ is none other than the Gulf of California — which is where Steinbeck and his biologist friend Ed Ricketts venture in this nonfiction narrative. (Ed Ricketts, by the way, inspired the character of Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.) It’s 1940, and the two friends sail to nearby wild beaches in pursuit of marine invertebrates. This memoir of sorts becomes a meditation on life with a strong focus on ecology and nature’s organic state of equilibrium. Though the detailed accounts of aquatic life may put some readers off, we believe this book will deeply touch anyone who loves the sea and the natural world.

Favorite quote: “We have made our mark on the world, but we have really done nothing that the trees and creeping plants, ice and erosion, cannot remove in a fairly short time.”

15. Tortilla Flat (1935)

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Taking the form of an Arthurian legend, Tortilla Flat tells the story of another Camelot: Monterey, California. Following Danny and his group of idiosyncratic paisano friends on their many wine-fueled shenanigans, this novel accomplishes the same feat as Cannery Row: it creates in the reader a complicated affection for deeply flawed characters. Though the morality of their actions varies, it is clear that the protagonists of Tortilla Flat mean well, as Steinbeck holds them up to the light to examine the shades of right and wrong inherent in their actions. Finally, we have to note that this 1935 book makes reference to some dated racial stereotypes, a fact which detracts from its success.

Favorite quote: “It is a time of quiet joy, the sunny morning. When the glittery dew is on the mallow weeds, each leaf holds a jewel which is beautiful if not valuable. This is no time for hurry or for bustle. Thoughts are slow and deep and golden in the morning.”

John Steinbeck’s books remain some of our favorite literary works. Many who set out to read just one or two of this author’s works find themselves on a literary pilgrimage, reading one Steinbeck book after another (we’ve been there) — so we hope this list comes in handy when you inevitably find yourself longing for more recommendations.

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Can't get enough of the literary classics? Check out our list of the 15 best Toni Morrison books, or our 11 favorite books by Ernest Hemingway.

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