How Great is Gatsby Again?
Rereading “The Great Gatsby” for the first time since high school.
By Rebecca Lynn Aulph
Recently, while my boyfriend and I browsed Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, he asked me if there was a book I wished I could read again for the first time. He couldn’t know how romantic he sounded. I told him that I didn’t know if such a book existed, because I had never read any book more than once. I told him I would get back to him.
Over the first quarter-century of my life, I have neglected to reread books with the excuse that there are too many books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read. Yet, I keep adding to the unread collection. Most of the books I do read end up in a bag to Goodwill, as I find few are good enough to reside permanently in my little library. However, with Gatsby Week prior to the release of the new major motion picture approaching, I decided that Saturday, May 4, was the perfect time to reread a book for the first time – and not the last.
Like many, I haven’t read “The Great Gatsby” since high school, but I remember loving the book and the roaring twenties party my class threw after we finished reading it. Around that time, I claimed that I wanted to live in the worlds of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger. These two authors solidified my want to be a writer. Following my reading of “The Catcher in the Rye,” I enjoyed Salinger’s short story collections and wished he had written another novel, but I never finished another work of Fitzgerald’s.
Shortly after reading “The Great Gatsby” for the first time, I checked out “This Side of Paradise” from my school’s library. The book’s due date came before I reached its end, and schoolwork distracted me from renewing. It wasn’t until the end of my college career – and subsequently the end of my guilty pleasure “Gossip Girl” – that I decided to purchase “The Beautiful and Damned,” the gossip girl of the 1920s referenced many times during the show. I started reading it last month during a plane ride, but it currently rests unfinished on my nightstand.
“Gatsby” gave me an excuse to read a book I claim to love but have never read more than once, a book which I feared that I didn’t remember enough to genuinely revere it. This fear that I might have forgotten something and that the book may not read as well as it had in high school prompted me to call my mother. She couldn’t find my old notes-in-the-margins, underlined, circled and sticky-noted copy in my cupboard of deserted books, so I was forced to buy a new copy.
I sauntered down to the local bookstore where my boyfriend’s question occurred. Upon my purchase of the Scribner trade 2004 edition paperback, the sales clerk mentioned that it is currently topping The New York Time’s bestseller list. When I told him that I was trying to pay tribute to the book before the movie, he said something that surprised me. He told me that a lot of people are giving it a second chance. To me, his word choice implied that many people didn’t enjoy the book the first time. I know people have different literary tastes, but I still have a hard time swallowing any argument against one of New York Public Library’s Books of the Century. His comment added another fear to my list. What if I only liked the book because I was in high school, coming of age like Nick Carraway?
Twenty-minutes early to work, I could have started reading immediately, but I stared at a white cinderblock wall instead, afraid to hear what my fellow English major coworker might have to say about the book. According to narrator Nick Carraway, “It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” Thus, I vowed to do something I always dream of doing. I decided to go to a coffee shop on Saturday and read the book in one sitting – another first. I figured I couldn’t control my second reaction to the book, but I could control how I read it, not analyzing a chapter at a time but leisurely enjoying the story with a latte.
The book’s nonexistent introduction took me by surprise. While “Gatsby” needs no introduction, I prayed that one would reanalyze the book for me, like a teacher, so I wouldn’t have to search for meaning myself. Consequently, I felt compelled to underline lofty phrases, such as, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Actually, from page one, I had to resist my high school-imbedded urge to underline every quotation I admired, but I couldn’t stop myself from mentally circling every reference to the colors white and red in the first chapter. I found it hard to believe that I had read this book before.
Reading with fervor, hesitating to put the book down, even to take notes, I remembered that I forgot how the story ends. My boyfriend claims to like rereading books because it’s as enjoyable as watching his favorite movie again, but the same logic kept me from rereading. I thought I’d recall the plot in detail, but I only remembered that something existed between Gatsby and Daisy, and that Gatsby wasn’t what he seemed.
After 65 pages, I realized that I was reading the book with the same anxiety I had in high school. I paid attention to every word. I started underling quotations that reflected my reading experience, such as “I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires.” Plus, I noted phrases that explained my love and fear of the book, as “… most affections conceal something eventually, even if they don’t in the beginning … .”
The book wasn’t reading the same, but it felt the same, like something else was riding on it. After all, “the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” At page 68, I wondered if maybe, from its view, the book will always be the same for me, like reading it for the first time.
Without teacher-directed study, though, I was able to make connections of my own. I noticed that “Gatsby” mentions the execution of the Rosenthals, like Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Having read “The Bell Jar” for the first time a few months ago, I couldn’t have appreciated “Gatsby’s” reference during my first read. Also, if I had not read “Gatsby” a second time, then I would not have realized that he and Plath describe the same New York, “… the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.”
Tangents aside, there might be a book out there that I want to read again for the first time, but “The Great Gatsby” is not that book. I enjoyed reading it for a second time and wouldn’t change that experience. Additionally, I am glad that I reread the book before the movie.
Saturday was a day of firsts for me, like the one Paul and Holly have in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Eventually, I related my relationship to “The Great Gatsby” to Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy. “Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby’s] dreams — not through her fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” Similarly, I feared that “Gatsby” would fall short of my high standards upon a second reading, especially because I waited a year longer than he did.
“I think [Daisy’s] voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed — that voice was a deathless song,” and so is Fitzgerald’s writing style. His voice still spoke to me the same way. “[Gatsby] talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself that had gone into loving Daisy … if he could return once to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was … .”
Like Gatsby, I learned through rereading that I couldn’t repeat a past relationship. Instead, I found something else incommunicable, for which I hadn’t been looking: another world, one in which I do not want to live, one about which I am glad to only read, one that might be too hard to watch.
When my boyfriend called on his way home from work Saturday night, he asked if I knew the answer to his question yet, and I told him that he’d have to read it. I did admit to him that I hadn’t remembered how the book ended, and he responded that he doesn’t remember ever reading the book. I burst out laughing. I did not know what surprised me more, the book’s end or his admittance. He called me and my laughter incredulous because I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t read the one book I reread. Now, I know what I am going to give him for his birthday on May 11. An opportunity to read “The Great Gatsby” for the first time.
Rebecca Lynn Aulph is an intern at Deep South, living in Decatur, Georgia. Find out more about her in our Contributors section, and read her posts about participating in National Novel Writing Month here.
Also for Gatsby Week:
Get Your Gatsby On: A Style Guide
Thoughts on the movie from some of the book’s biggest fans
Blame It on Scott and Zelda