Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gatsby and I

I had the good fortune of having a few good English teachers in high school, but I had a couple of bad ones as well, or at least indifferent ones. Probably most people can say the same. I think of this on the rare occasions when I pick up a book that's likely to be taught in school, such as The Great Gatsby. In the case of that book, I'm glad no one taught it to me in any school, especially my least favorite high school English teacher, who ruined a number of works for me either permanently or for a good many years -- such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I only appreciated well into adulthood.

I'm glad no one taught Gatsby to me at any school because it's too good. Better that I've discovered it myself over the decades, peeling back a little more each time. I can't remember when I read it first. Probably sometime in college, but not as an assignment. I've read it once every few years since whenever that was, whenever I realize it's been a few years since the last time. Sunday was such a day, and if I didn't have work or other things to do, I'd have finished it again by now.

So many good lines. This is one of my favorites, the first shadowy image of Gatsby: "... I saw I was not alone -- fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars."

I've heard that it hasn't been adapted well to the screen, but even if the movies based on it had turned out better, I still wouldn't want to see them, because the book is too good. Certain books are just that way. Besides, I already have all the characters in mind. They already look like old acquaintances of mine, even down to some of the minor characters, such as Klipspringer, Gatsby's permanent guest; he looks like a lanky, careless fellow who lived across the hall from me in college one year and failed, or was incomplete, in all of his courses one semester.

Otherwise Gatsby turns up in some odd places. In 1988 or '89, when I lived in Chicago the first time, four or five friends and I went to a party at a house near Wrigleyville large enough to have at least two floors and a number of rooms. We'd been invited by a friend of one of my friends who didn't actually live there, and had spontaneously decided to go. It was a fairly busy party and we stayed a while. Later it occurred to us that none of us had met the host, or anyone who lived at the house, and we took to calling the event "the Gatsby party." Even today, if I brought it up to one of those old friends, whom I rarely see now, they'd probably remember calling it that.

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