What We Talk About When We Talk About The Great Gatsby

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I’m not sure if The Great Gatsby really is my favorite book, but for a long time, it’s been my go-to answer to the question that inevitably crops up soon after I tell someone I’m a writer. It makes me sound much less pretentious than if I said Infinite Jest, and it garners far fewer weird looks than if I said Lolita – two other finalists for the distinction.

Claiming Gatsby as your favorite book is like saying pizza is your favorite food – most people will agree that it’s amazing, but it’s so popular and ubiquitous that it seems to say very little about the person who holds it close to their heart. I always wonder if I should pick something a little less bland for my supposed favorite book. Plenty of occasional readers probably remember thinking highly of it back in high school. It’s not hard to guess why Gatsby is so easily loved (or at least liked) – the plot is straightforward and maybe a little melodramatic, plus it’s so short that even a minimally motivated student can’t help but finish it. 

But like pizza, just because Gatsby is widely appreciated doesn’t make it any less brilliant. The book is tightly packed with near-universal human struggle, rendered in the most achingly beautiful prose. You don’t have to wade very far into it to find two of the most exquisitely written paragraphs in the history of the English language:

"We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

"The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor."

Some brilliant works of art are so meticulously crafted that they project an elitism that repels most people. I think that Gatsby, though, exemplifies a rare kind of brilliance that almost anyone can recognize and appreciate, even if they’re not quite sure why they’re so entranced by it. I make a point of rereading Gatsby at least once a year, just so I can marvel at the sheer number of astonishingly perfect sentences collected in one place.

Naturally, I was thrilled to discover the new book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures by Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan, a fellow unabashed Gatsbyphile who, as I expected, was practically giddy when I showed her the background on my iPhone (the iconic cover art painted by Francis Cugat) in the signing line at the Boston Book Festival last year. In the book, Corrigan explores the origins of the novel within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic life, unpacks some of the densely written text, and takes a few stabs at explaining the reason for its continued relevance. 

Although it is excellently constructed and well argued, the book doesn’t try to be dense literary criticism. Instead, Corrigan wrote it because she simply adores Gatsby, and as a result, her book is an absolute joy to read. She writes less like a professor giving a lecture and more like a friend sitting next to you on the couch, thumbing through her well-worn Scribner’s paperback and pointing out passages while exclaiming, “See? Isn’t this part right here just incredible?”

It’s also heartening for me to find someone with her credentials – someone who has undoubtedly read and carefully considered at least ten times as many novels as I have – proudly proclaiming her love for Gatsby. Like Corrigan, I wouldn’t care if everyone I had ever met had pointed to Gatsby as their favorite novel; I’d still love it just as much. For someone already fully enamored of Gatsby, So We Read On offers a handful of new perspectives on the novel, but is mostly just a chance to seriously nerd out for a few hundred pages. For someone who hasn’t revisited Gatsby since high school, Corrigan will provide the impetus to pull out an old copy and reacquaint yourself with one of the top contenders for the Great American Novel.

File under The Great Gatsby, Criticism, Boston Book Festival

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