By January 14, 2009 1 Comments Read More →

A Rereading Meeting?

I just re-read The Great Gatsby, a book I hadn’t looked at since high school. Back then, I remember that I liked Gatsby, but wasn’t overwhelmed. I didn’t quite get the hoopla. I re-read the novel while bouncing up and down on the elliptical trainer at the gym, a setting that sometimes doesn’t work with literary fiction. (Did Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke deserve the National Book Award? I’m not sure, but I finally gave up on it after many unhappy workouts, about 500 pages in.) On re-reading Gatsby, two thoughts struck me. First, this really was a great book, one that holds up marvelously, a book that despite its slight size is a deserving contender for the title of Great American Novel.  Second, I really wonder why this book is so frequently assigned to teenagers: It’s power comes from emotions and events to which they are unlikely to relate.

The power of Gatsby comes from themes like the loss of idealism; the way in which unfulfilled dreams can wither, becoming hollow obsessions; and the limits of romance. These aren’t exactly themes the average teenager has the life experience to appreciate! When I first read the book, I remember feeling angry toward Daisy and Gatsby, even toward Nick and Jordan, that they couldn’t just act on their feelings and let love conquer all. Twenty years later, I understand why they can’t ride off into the sunset. I love Fitzgerald’s ear for dialogue, his graceful use of symbolism, and his majestic descriptions of the guests at Gatsby’s parties.

I started keeping a list of books that I’ve read at the turn of the century. Among my reasons for beginning the list was the desire to tap into a kind of autobiography: the map of memories that I connect with the books I was reading and the ideas and emotions they created in me.  I would encourage any habitual reader to keep such a list and use it occasionally to revisit your emotional and intellectual history.

For a rewarding book group meeting, consider asking each member to revisit a book, perhaps one remembered with some ambivalence. Then share your experiences. Here are a few questions to guide your re-reading:

  • When did you first read the book? What events were occuring in your life at the time? What thoughts occupied your mind in those days?
  • In retrospect, did your reaction to the book then have anything to do with your emotional landscape at that time?
  • If the book was a school assignment, do you think your teacher made a wise selection? Was the book appropriate for students of your age?
  • How did your reaction to the book change on re-reading it? Why? Did you miss anything the first time around? Did your life experiences change your interpretation?
  • Would this book be different again if you read it in another twenty years? Is it a book you will consider revisiting?

I’ve added The Sun Also Rises (which I hated), Rabbit, Run (which I felt mixed about), and Leaves of Grass (which I adored) to my list. Which books will you re-read?

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "A Rereading Meeting?"

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  1. hwesley@bham.lib.al.us' Holley says:

    I read this and wondered, are you in my bookgroup too? TGG was our January title and the exact same topic was brought up, re: teenagers reading it and not having the life experience to appreciate it. This was a re-read for most members of our group and they, to a person, remembered alot of the symbolism of the story but not the emotions or much of the character development that they were able to appreciate this time around.

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