Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Great Gatsby. To Mrs. Ulrich

I joined another book club. This one is an in-person kind. My first meeting is on Tuesday and it's a classic literature book club so the first book I read with these guys is The Great Gatsby. I'm sure many of you read this in high school as did I. But I know that I missed a lot so I was happy to read it again.

Funny thing, I tried to find it at my local public library and had a really hard time tracking it down. It wasn't in the fiction section which I browsed by last name. I couldn't imagine a public library of this size not having at least one copy so I looked it up on their online database from home. But when I got to the library again, I found that the search results led me to the nonfiction section and there were just analysis and academic material on F. Scott Fitzgerald and his writings, instead of the writings themselves. Two reference librarians later I was directed to the young adults paperback section where I found three copies sitting on the shelves. Young adults, eh? Who knew?? Well, actually, I bet some of my readers knew.

But back to Gatsby. It was good. Really good. And a quick read too coming in at 180 pages. I found it interesting all the stuff I was confused about from my first read back in high school all coming back to me. And I wonder at my ignorance. Part of it wasn't my fault. I think I grew up in a fairly sheltered environment with my isolated immigrant family. How was I supposed to understand a sentence like:
"You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy," I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret.
Talk about feeling uncivilized. I think I asked my English teacher Mrs. Ulrich about what that meant and I vaguely remember her saying something about it doing with wine, but I still didn't get it. Corky? Claret? What was so impressive about it? And how come none of the dialogue made any sense?

As I read it this weekend I remembered more parts that I puzzled over back in high school lit class. I can't imagine that I understood any of the book to be able to write intelligent papers on it for my class. And I also recollect the exasperation Mrs. Ulrich expressed during discussions in class. The brilliance of this literature must have been lost on all of us. What a shame. I'd love to go back and have a discussion with her about this book now.

I guess something that wouldn't have occurred to me was how subtle the writing could be. A lot of stuff is nuanced, and I'm thinking that you wouldn't be able to "get it" unless you've lived a little and gotten around a bit. To an able reader of literature, the nuanced and subtle bits seem pretty obvious and the book is rich with layers and layers of symbolism for lit lovers to glorify in. But back in high school English class I wasn't equipped to fully appreciate this as I am now.

I enjoyed the writing which I thought was very smart without being excessively clever. I thought his use of themes was masterful. And I finished the story a bit caught up in the tragedy of the failed characters, but still feeling like they all sort of got what they deserved (right or wrong). I'm looking forward to Tuesday's meeting to hear what the other classic lit lovers have to say about this and silently dedicating my participation in the discussion to Mrs. Ulrich.


meteowrite said...

I wonder if we read the "classics" to early. I know I didn't get most of what I read in high school. I certainly know I didn't enjoy most of it. Perhaps there should be a required follow up class for people in their 30s. And you could read the good stuff then.

meteowrite said...

And way to join a book club! You rock! You rock the book clubs!

jean said...

Yeah, I get the feeling that trust fund babies/ingenues are the only ones who would have gotten Gatsby. I was definitely too young and naiive for it. Makes me think I should go back and reread all my high school literature picks.

Yes! Book clubs are so cool!

jean beaumont said...

Tu es trop savante pour moi.
Parle moi plutôt de mathématiques.