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Unread Until Now: Musings on Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
I am embarrassed to say but up until a week ago, I had never read The Great Gatsby. I had never been assigned to read it in school and frankly over the years I never wanted to read it. I actually had developed an aversion of sorts to the book. This was founded on nothing more than air. Seems strange but I can develop an instant dislike to anything based on nothing and unfortunately have it flavor my feelings for a book and for that matter, a movie, type of cuisine, a neighborhood and finally something as innocent as a public beach, sadly almost anything.
Fortunately no one ever as asked me about the book and so I did not have to reveal my completely unfounded, unintelligent, biased opinion about a book I never read. Until that is my boss at the time Rene Kotler made reference to The Great Gatsby when we were in conversation. She then looked to me for a response and I had to admit that I never read the book. Rene looked at me sideways and said “You have never read The Great Gatsby?!?!” I could feel my cheeks turn red and I made a lame excuse and then boldly told her I actually had no interest in ever reading it. Incredulous and shocked, she shook her head. She then went into an emphatic defense of why the book is so good and should be read by me, “It is really a love story more than anything else, a truly passionate love story… you would love it. Trust me you will.” That was in the summer of 08 and I thought a bit about The Great Gatsby after our talk and put it in on my mental list of books I would read one day. However, I still had an uneasy feeling about the book despite the glowing recommendation of Rene, a woman I like and respect. One year later I still had not read The Great Gatsby but it was on my mental list. It was July and I happen to be in the car driving to the Rockaways to spend a glorious day at the beach. It was a Saturday morning around 10:00 and I was listening to WNYC. The radio show about to begin was NPR’s Studio 360 and on that day the show was to be devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. When I heard this, I turned the volume up a bit more, ready and interested to listen. It was a wonderful broadcast. On one of the segments, writer Jonathan Franzen was interviewed about his feelings on The Great Gatsby. It was at this point that all the bad feelings I had about the book went away. The entire show was very good but it was Franzen’s remarks about The Great Gatsby that singlehandedly changed my feelings about this American classic. After listening to the show, I knew shortly I would be reading The Great Gatsby.
Now it is September and I have just finished the book. After hearing The Great Gatsby broadcast on Studio 360, I knew that I was in store for a treat. From the very first page, I was pulled into the book. The story is a good one, but more importantly it is Fitzgerald’s deft command of the written word to tell the story that is dazzling. The writing is so powerfully good. In some passages it is one phrase after another, a confluence of words and rhythm, creating a lexiconal beauty that is magical to experience, as line after line unfolds before your eyes. Some passages warrant a re-reading because the language is so tight, poignant and light, almost ethereal. The Great Gatsby was far greater than I ever could have imagined.
Below is one passage that made me pause…
“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. 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 a 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 so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as much 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.” (from Chapter 3)
It is odd that I was able to miss out on reading The Great Gatsby all these years. It was simply chance. Honestly though had I been assigned to read it in high school or college, I think I might have liked the book, but not fell in love with it the way I have now, after just reading it. There are many things I would have missed: the nuances, the imagery and the shifts in tone, the wonderful construction and the important social history displayed within the pages. Had I read it many, many years ago The Great Gatsby may have just been a good book and nothing more to me and that would have been a crime. I am actually thankful that somehow I missed out on this American masterpiece all these years until now. I actually feel fortunate to have read The Great Gatsby at this point in my life, many years later than most have read it.
Now when someone makes reference to The Great Gatsby and looks to me for a response, I will be able to add my two cents based proudly on the fact that I have actually read the book. And another beautiful passage...
“…Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees---he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” (from Chapter 6)