Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review - The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyBack when I was in first year of college and infinitesimally younger, our lecturer put F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on our course for us to read. Now, I do my best with college reading material, but there's something about being told to read a book but there being no obligation to read the book that just puts me off it entirely. I tried to read the book, and failed miserably. Then John Green decided people should read it, and suddenly I had an interest. I think that says more about my willingness to follow up on a recommendation of a book than it does about my interest in college.

Anyway, by far the biggest highlight of the reading of the book - aside from finally doing what I'd set out to do before, and failed - was to discuss the book with John Green. He made a video talking about the first chapter, and I seized upon the opportunity to answer his question about Gatsby's 'American Dream'. More on that at the end of the post in a "spoiler" zone. Until then: the review!

So, what did you think of the book when you finally got around to reading it?
I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by how funny it was. I think a major problem with the great classics in literature is that many of them are portrayed as exactly that: great and classic. Classic implies age, and age reminds us of our grandparents laughing at stories that are only funny to them and no one else. But this, while being a "classic" was nothing at all like that. The humour was full of wit and intelligence that seemed like a product of the great modern minds, not just in books but on television in talk shows and the like (Stephen Fry immediately comes to mind.)

Beyond that, there was also a great story to fill a relatively short book. There were characters of varying complexity, scenes of places that, while being dated, felt right when I read them and relationships that were imagined perfectly. It was an old book, yes, but a story that can still be read today. (In fairness to it, actually, it's not even ninety years old. If I'm half as interesting at that age I'd be delighted! If I aged as slowly as the book, too, even better.)

What's your favourite aspect of this book?
I don't know whether this is because John Green recommended it or whether I just noticed it, but I like how there was a clear comparison between The Great Gatsby and Paper Towns; in each book, the characters all mis-imagined people expertly, so that Gatsby was a whole number of different things and only some of that true, like Margo was a different person according to everyone else. How we imagine people complexly and how we get it wrong is by far one of the most interesting messages that I can take from the book (both of them, actually). It's a book that can teach us a lot about not only fiction but the people who surround us, too.

Who would you recommend this book to?
If you like John Green, this is a good book to pick up next. The humour is similar (if a little older) and the style of writing is different, but the messages in the book are familiar and worth picking up. For lovers of American literature, for people who like to read the classics, for people considering studying English in university and for people who love good stories and/or strong messages in books, this is for you. It's a fantastic book and once you get into it you'll fall in love with it. Unfortunately, it's only nine chapters long, so it'll be a short lived romance. Some of the best ones always are.

The "spoiler" section, featuring the comments on The Great Gatsby

I apologise for turning all English-student on you, but this is actually what I said in the comments section of John's video. I'm such an incredible nerd sometimes.

Me: It seems to me that the continuing search for wealth and monetary success is surrounded not only in a growing sadness, but in a mixed sense of morality (seen clearly in Tom's mistress in New York). Daisy and Tom are rich, young and good looking, they have a beautiful little girl, and neither one is happy. Combine that observation with the snobbery about East and West Egg and we see that all they value in the Great American Dream is wealth and not the happy lives meant to go with it.

John: I agree with everything you say here: Somehow we've managed to divorce success from happiness, which leads to a larger question: Is being happy the goal of being alive? Or is there some greater goal? And is the greater goal served by the ambition to wealth and luxury? (I think this is not such a clear-cut question, and I think Gatsby explores the question in all its complexity.)

Me: I think we can imagine that Gatsby's American Dream changes throughout the novel. He's achieved what he first set out to do - getting wealth by any, even scrupulous, means - only to find that he wants to be happy. He hopes to use his wealth to get the girl he loves. Maybe one of his greatest flaws is not realising that he can have happiness in being honest (demonstrated by his friendship with Carraway) rather than trying to prove his worth by the value of his house.

And with that, I bid you adieu. I have a website to work on and articles to write for The Phantom Zone.

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