I don’t remember exactly when I first read The Great Gatsby, but I do remember that I didn’t think much of it. My memories of it consisted of “over-hyped, not very interesting, short, some girl gets run over.” I couldn’t have told you two things about the titular character, including his first name. I could tell you even less about Fitzgerald’s writing.
How is that possible? I didn’t read Gatsby in high school, when words pass through a brain still mostly mush (because of which I forgive myself for forgetting everything about another Fitzgerald book, Tender is the Night, on which I did my junior theme). I didn’t read it in college, when words pass through a brain littered with two million other words every semester about everything from economics to management theory. No, I read it as an alleged grown-up, as someone who should be able to discern good writing (anything by Dickens) from bad writing (anything by Dan Brown).
But, when the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s movie became ubiquitous on the TV, I decided now would be a good time to re-read Gatsby. It only took but four or five pages to determine that almost everything I remembered was wrong. (It is a short book.)
The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.
It is a profoundly lyrical novel. It is barely two-hundred pages, but tells more of a story than most novels three or four times its size. It is littered with descriptions that stick in your head long after the book has been put back on the shelf. It is one of those rare novels where more is going on between the lines than in the lines, but it’s easy to lose track because in the lines is so beautiful.
I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade. … As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.
So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.
In that one sentence, the narrator speaks not only of growing older, but the literal death that was around the bend in the road, and the death of the time, the Jazz Age in which they lived, the age that Fitzgerald himself gave title to, and to which he was presciently speaking a eulogy over before the rest of the country had even begun to celebrate the birth. And he does it all so cleanly and concisely you almost don’t notice as your eyes pass over the words. The ten words.
The novel deserves every accolade it’s received, but somehow I missed it the first time, probably because I was reading out of duty instead of interest — “I should read a classic this month, I guess I’ll do Gatsby.”
I find I have the same problem reading the Bible. More than lyrical, it is living, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Yet, when I read it as a duty, I find myself missing the power, the lyricism, the truth. The point.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. (Isaiah 55:1–2)
Reading out of duty is a form of spending money on what is not bread; I should instead “delight myself in abundance,” and read out of love. In doing so, I have a far better chance of hearing the Spirit speak, and allowing the living, discerning, Word to do that for which it is intended: teach me of the God who loves me and how to give glory to His Son Jesus who died and was resurrected so I could do just that.
Both books are highly recommended. The Great Gatsby will change your mind about classics. The Bible will change your life.
(The entry title is one of many names that Fitzgerald considered for the book before landing on The Great Gatsby, which he was never that fond of.)