In high school, I had an English teacher who loved The Great Gatsby. We spent many weeks going over that book. We talked about the themes, reread passages and watched the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
And because of my teacher's passion, that book is firmly embedded in my brain, or so I thought.
I read a lot — at least 100 books a year — not including kids' picture and chapter books. But ask me to tell you the last few books I've read, and I have to think about it. If I don't keep a running tab, I can't remember.
It's one thing to be a voracious reader. It's another thing entirely to be a good reader. My New Year's resolution is not to read more books. It's to read a smaller number, but slower.
I want to go back and reread those books that I claim are my favorite (including Jane Eyre, which I listened to my daughter's class discuss and realized that a good portion was lost to memory).
What a pleasure it was to sit down with F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece this month. People have been talking about the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio movie, so I guess it rekindled my interest. For those of you who haven't read it, Jay Gatsby is a man with new money, acquired to win back former love Daisy Buchanan, who hails from old Louisville money. He moves across the bay from her in Long Island, N.Y. — staring at the green light at the end of her dock — and he stages elaborate parties to impress her. Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, is not pleased.
Published in 1925, the book is on many top literature lists and is featured as one of the choices for the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read program. There are things you can't forget about this book, such as the billboard with the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg: "But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground."
Gatsby is a short book, 182 pages, crammed with some of the most exquisite observations about human character and longing. It's also a fascinating and prescient take on the American Dream.
Granted, it has been about 30 years (is that possible?) since I read the book, but I thought I remembered more. Gatsby also is funnier than I recall; or perhaps my teenage self didn't appreciate the wit.
Here are a few snippets that I enjoyed:
On Tom Buchanan: "Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart."
From Jordan Baker, professional golfer and narrator Nick Carraway's love interest: "And I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy.'"
On Gatsby: "He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand."
And from Gatsby: "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!'"
What a luxury it is to read a book the way you did in school. Adulthood brings endless exhausting errands and responsibilities. Few people have time to read anything at all beyond what's on a smartphone or a computer screen. Too many times, I've collapsed in bed and opened a book only to immediately fall asleep still wearing glasses, the book splayed across my chest.
I put aside other tasks to reread Gatsby. When I found myself speeding up, I slowed down.
"The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary," wrote Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins. "The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life."
I reread and underlined Fitzgerald's bursting sentences, adding my own notes to margins that were already marked up.
And as I finished Gatsby for the second but certainly not the last time, I underscored one of the most iconic lines in literature, sort of fitting as I revisit my reading history: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."