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What It’s Like to Read ‘The Great Gatsby’ for the First Time at 37

With Baz Luhrmann’s splashy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel contender hitting theaters Friday, Flavorwire is devoting this week to all things Great Gatsby. Click here to follow our coverage.

I’m still not sure how I’d made it to age 37 without reading The Great Gatsby, but this much was for sure: I was going to have to. It’s never a bad idea to read the source material when gearing up to review the film adaptation of a highly regarded literary property (though the finite number of hours in the day certainly prevent that notion’s translation from theory to practice), but my editor’s suggestion for a “Gatsby Week” piece on the difficulty of adapting Fitzgerald’s classic to celluloid sort of cinched it. “Ha, ha, funny story, I’ve never read it,” I chortled, and her nonverbal response to that ill-timed bit of mirth made it clear that I’d be doing so sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t a conscious choice, some kind of contrarian boycott of what is generally regarded as one of the finest books in the English language. But most people read it in school. For whatever reason, my particular compliment of middle- and high-school English classes never found room for it on the syllabi. This is not particularly unusual; I know plenty of people who never read The Catcher in the Rye or Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies, and whenever one of them admits it, the revelation usually prompts the kind of dropped-jaw shock that’s greeted me whenever I make my shameful Gatsby admission.

But no more. At 37-and-one-half years old, I have finally read The Great Gatsby — no great feat, admittedly, as it’s a slender 180 pages and was easily digestible over three or so days of subway rides. It’s not half bad! Just kidding, obviously; the prose is gorgeous, the characters vivid, the scenes rich and evocative. It’s compact, efficient storytelling (presumably one reason Hollywood keeps trying to adapt it), but loaded with luminous language and characters of uncharted depth (presumably one reason they keep failing to adapt it well — but more of that later). I’m thankful that the film gave me the excuse to finally get around to reading it, though it would have been nice to do so without already envisioning DiCaprio as Gatsby.

Yet it is a young person’s book, which made the experience of approaching it at an age not only beyond that of most first-time readers, but of the characters and even the author himself (Fitzgerald was not yet 30 when he penned it) somewhat schizophrenic. I can easily imagine being drawn into Gatsby’s world as a teenage reader, seduced by the Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the nonstop parties, of casual sex and unrequited love, of drinking and dancing and East Coast high society. It is, as a teenager, the kind of thing you can long for and only imagine being a part of — just as Gatsby (or, more accurately, Gatz) did himself.

From a mid-30s vantage point (37 still counts as mid-30s, right?), it’s all a bit less beguiling. And I’m not just talking logistics — though I did have a moment, while watching one of those film adaptations, of looking at a scene of a party’s morning-after remnants and thinking, “Ugh, now they have to clean that up.” No, it’s less to do with hassle than with the lessons of age. I can’t imagine this to be a unique experience, but it is hard to imagine oneself as a “grown-up,” and it certainly seems that, in the time of Gatsby and after, young men and women matured at a quicker rate (thanks to the bruises of war and earlier entry into the workforce). These people seem older than me, but they’re not; they’re younger, and learning lessons that I’ve already ingested (intentionally or not) about the emptiness of conspicuous consumption, the vapidity of the idle rich, the recklessness of youth, the overpowering and toxic influence of class, and the ultimate futility of nostalgia.

Most importantly, The Great Gatsby embraces what has become that most American of urges: the longing to start over. Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but his most iconic work considers a character who took his second act into his own hands — recreating his very personage, crafting his own identity, to his own specifications. (Let’s not dwell on how he accomplished this.) As someone who spent the past few years finding a new career and attempting to reinvent myself, I have to admire the skill with which Gatsby pulls it off. (Hopefully my reinvention will have a bit happier an ending than his.)

Above all, the book is satisfying — and it’s always a relief when a classic turns out to have attained that distinction for good reason. As it wound down, with the heartbreaking account of Gatsby’s poorly attended funeral, the evocative description of a summer drawing to a close, and those shattering phrases in which both the faraway green light and our very future is “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” it felt as though my own youth was both behind me and yet, somehow, still untouchably onward.

And then I closed the book, and wondered if this meant I should finally get around to The Scarlet Letter, too.

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