We each have a finite amount of time in our lives, and it's certainly not enough time to read every great book that's been written. But there are some books that simply must be read (especially by one who claims to be, herself, a writer). How is it possible that I dodged The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald through high school and university? How is it that I owned the book, started it multiple times, and never finished it? I'm honestly unsure. Today I erase the shame of avoidance and can proudly say I've read The Great Gatsby, I'm glad I did, and I'd recommend it to another.
Fitzgerald's book about a group of bored, rich socialites summering in West and East Egg (fictionalized versions of Long Island's North Shore) took 100 pages to grow on me. The plot builds slowly which is odd, given that's not a long book (182 pages) and actually felt more like a novella to me. Reading about the superficial lives of shallow people can be tedious. However, somewhere in there I started to understand that Fitzgerald was making a critical social commentary about their shallowness, their grand parties, incessant drinking, lying and cheating. The main characters of Tom and Daisy, and the enigmatic Gatsby himself, live in facing houses with butlers, chauffeurs, nannies, gardeners, cooks, and pools into which they never once even dip a big toe. Tom and Daisy have a three-year-old daughter who is paraded out in a fancy dress at a cocktail party but never named or otherwise heard from. They sip Mint Juleps and discuss the outrageousness of marriages between social classes as being as absurd as marriages between Blacks and Whites. I'm pretty sure readers are meant to laugh at—not with—them, however this was written in 1925, at a time when it was also acceptable to sip from a bottle of bourbon while you drove your Rolls Royce into nearby Manhattan.
The narrator is Nick, Gatsby's neighbour and distant cousin to Daisy. He is the moral center of the story, and capable of both being seduced into their heady world while simultaneously being appalled by it. He is friend and witness to the philanderings of the main characters, bringing his own "Middle Western" sensibility and a practical perspective to their lives. Besides Nick, the other characters are an unhappy lot of people, dishonest and lacking any purpose or moral centre, willing to break a woman's nose with a sharp backhand if she says something unpleasant. Their actions are not judged, and readers must build their own sense of horror from the casual nature by which violence unfolds.
Fitzgerald's observations and his style of writing, his unusual phrasing, and his ability to show rather than tell, are remarkable. He is a master of language and for that reason alone this book deserves to be the classic that it is. I was also fortunate to have borrowed a copy from the library at Mount Saint Vincent University, and a student before me had underlined exceptionally written paragraphs, and penciled notes in the margins such as, "Why so attached to Gatsby?" "Good imagery, dark," "Why no resentment toward Daisy?" "Why the man go to the funeral?" It was delightful to read another reader's notes. I learned from them and felt like part of a reading group. I don't generally support defacing library books with one's own musings, but in this instance I felt like I was brought into a community of readers, which felt apt given that I bet most of you have already read The Great Gatsby, my coming so late to the party.
Is there a book you feel you should have read by now, one that is continually referenced in pop culture or by your peers? I urge you to list it here under Comments, add it to your summer reading list and get in on the conversation.