There’s a group of writers I almost always lump together, constantly comparing their works and where they stand both in the landscape of classic American literature and on my own bookshelf. All born around the turn of the last century, the group includes Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck. Though each was great in his own right, this list will focus solely on the best John Steinbeck books.
Previously I published my ranking of best Ernest Hemingway books. Let me be upfront about why I put these lists together: I don’t believe that my opinions (and that’s what this is, an opinion) are the ultimate, but rather I am trying to offer a resource for people trying to dive into these books, give them a place to start, create a conversation or keep one going.
Steinbeck has always been an author who has intrigued me. During my freshman year of high school, we read Of Mice and Men. That was my first experience reading Steinbeck. A year later, we read The Grapes of Wrath. But as with most of the great classics that I was forced to read in school, it wasn’t until years later, in college and afterward, that I truly began to appreciate how brilliant these books were.
Born in Salinas, Calif., in 1902, Steinbeck published 27 books over the course of his life, many of which focused on the trials and tribulations of America’s everyman, making him a popular author among the rural community.
If you’re a fervent fan, or if you’re wondering which of his books to give a try first, here is a list of the 5 best John Steinbeck books.
5. Tortilla Flat (1935)
In 1935, John Steinbeck was still an author determined to put his name on the map. Then he published Tortilla Flat.
The book took off, receiving critical acclaim and selling wildly. This slim novella follows a man named Danny and his paisanos in the years following World War I. With a cast of characters enjoying wine and shenanigans in the hills above Monterey, California, Tortilla Flat was the first recognized Steinbeck book in a long line that explore the hardships and perseverance of America’s everyman.
4. Cannery Row (1945)
Written following the enormous successes of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row is a classic Steinbeck book that witnesses down-on-their-luck characters attempt to overcome the everyday struggles that so many endured during the Great Depression.
One of the main characters, Doc, was actually based on one of Steinbeck’s close friends, Ed Ricketts, and the real-life road where the story took place, Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California, was eventually renamed Cannery Row to honor the Steinbeck book.
Much less daunting than some of his other works (see: The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden), Cannery Row is 200 pages of classic Steinbeck.
3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
This masterpiece coming third on the list of best John Steinbeck books may be surprising to some, but that’s not to say it isn’t one of the greatest American novels ever written. Winning Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath is arguably his most famous work.
Coming at the tail-end of the devastating Great Depression and following a book with a similar setting (Of Mice and Men), The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a poor farming family from Oklahoma who were forced to relocate to California following the Dust Bowl.
Inspired through his personal observations during the time period, this is a novel that will be taught in schools for generations.
2. Of Mice and Men (1937)
I have to be honest: this was an extremely difficult decision. Of Mice and Men is one of my favorite books, not just by Steinbeck, but by any author. Though not intimidating in length, coming in at just 30,000 words, the slim novella is genuine Steinbeck. The story is simple yet powerful, weaving artistic Steinbeck imagery with honest action and epic consequences. And the characters, lest we forget, George and Lennie, are as engrained in the canon of American literature as the likes of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby.
If you’re a fan of film, you can check out the several adaptations that were produced between 1939, just two years after the book was released, and 1992.
1. East of Eden (1952)
Sure, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men were unforgettable classics, but it’s hard to disagree with John Steinbeck himself about which of his books was his best. “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this,” Steinbeck said of East of Eden.
And rightfully so. The 608-page epic set largely in his home of Salinas Valley, California, tells the stories of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and takes place over the course of several generations. Though Steinbeck’s unique ability to describe place in many of his other works is remarkable, it is on the greatest of display in East of Eden.
While I consider this 1952 masterpiece Steinbeck’s greatest work, I would by no means recommend this be any reader’s introduction to the author. With so many short novels and novellas to read first, East of Eden is definitely one to work up to.
But I can assure you: it’s well worth your time.