In my younger and more vulnerable years, I stumbled upon a book that would change my life.
You’ve probably already guessed that I’m talking about The Great Gatsby. I’m talking about it because I’m re-reading it for the fourth (?) time, and I’m re-reading it because a new movie version is premiering in a few weeks. While I am of the mind that Gatsby is an unfilm-able book, it leaves me no less interested in seeing the outcome. First, though, I wanted to refresh my memory of the book.
In the midst of my reading, it occurred to me – and probably this has occurred to me before – that while it’s no surprise that I admire this beloved American classic, the way I came to it is kind of a surprise.
From middle school on, I was in the honors English program. In those seven years, I read myriad classic novels and today I can’t even remember the titles of those books. I certainly don’t remember liking anything I read in any of those classes. Reading always seemed like such a chore to me, at least reading whatever I was supposed to be reading.
In my senior year, I was quite excited that my dinky little school was going to offer a music history class. I signed up immediately and was so disappointed on the first day when not a single other student in the class had ever heard of Vivaldi. I dropped the class in favor of American Literature, a non-honors, regular English elective open to 11th and 12th graders. I couldn’t tell you now why I picked an English class, it doesn’t fit with my memory of myself. I can tell you that in this class, we read Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Look, I remember the titles! I even remember the plots and the characters. And most importantly, I loved these books. Both of ’em. I’ll spare you the analogy that I fell in love with The Great Gatsby just as Jay had fallen in love with Daisy, but it is true that I had never loved reading a book as much as I loved reading Gatsby.
The “regular” English class also left me with another “literary” tradition that I carry on to this day. As an ongoing assignment, we were to take pre-selected quotes from the text of Gatsby and analyze their meaning. This was my favorite assignment ever. I loved dissecting the lines of Fitzgerald’s flowery, evocative prose and sharing my interpretations and the personal significance I attached to them. To this day I read a book with a pencil in hand, set to underline anything that catches my fancy. Then when I’m finished, as if it were an assignment, I transfer everything I underlined to my computer for quick reference. (This is another huge advantage of the Kindle, it does all that for me with a few button clicks.)
I am always on the lookout for the next excellent content so it’s nice to occasionally take a step back and revel in a favorite work. And like any great book or film or show, I get more out of Gatsby each time I read it. I always find something new to underline and I am not sure if that’s because I have internalized previous underlines so well I can focus on different aspects of the text, or if I just respond to different things now that I am older. Probably a little bit of both.
I’ll finish this (the book and the post) before the new film comes out. If nothing else, the casting has me intrigued, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick and Carey Mulligan as Daisy, a role I think she may have been born to play. Filmmakers have tried and failed to capture this book before, and it’s because despite a colorful main character, lavish sets and costumes and dramatic plot points, the heart of this book lies in the way it is told, through the eyes of an honest an observant man just along for the ride. It may seem odd that I am somehow excited to see a film that I am not excited to see, but unlike Gatsby, I don’t want too much, so I know I won’t be disappointed.
This line from the novel is in the trailer:
“‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.'” “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!'”
This line isn’t:
“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”