I Want To Live Forever (Or At Least Until the Giants Win the World Series)
In addition to everything else that's been going on, I spent the last two weeks discussing The Great Gatsby with a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. Most of our discussions were actually about the time in the future when we would really be able to discuss things. But I finally got to have two long talks with her while at the English Institute last Friday. There's something surreal about giving advice on how an ordinary person should approach a classic work of "literature" surrounded by coffee-breaking English professors of the highest order. Still I managed to overcome my self-consciousness long enough to find something to say:
Instead of waxing poetic about themes, exposition and plot, Charlie Bertsch, an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona who teaches "Gatsby," suggested simple tactics free of English-lit jargon and rhetoric.
Rather than think about the book's sweeping theme, focus on details. If you like to cook, focus on scenes with meals or in a kitchen. Re-read a particularly appealing passage.
"When you focus and sort of slow down and look at one little part of it, it becomes less overwhelming and you start to find out what might interest you as a reader," he says.
Plus, focusing on something you like allows you to stick with the book long enough to notice qualities you might have otherwise overlooked.
When Bertsch read "Gatsby" as a freshman in high school, he was "really into the bootlegging stuff." Now he finds himself lingering over Fitzgerald's descriptions of interiors.
Pulling out an engaging bit causes you to "leap from reading in a neutral way to reading for things you're interested in," Bertsch says.
For me, it was Daisy's white dress moving in the wind. I pictured that in my head, and suddenly I had a whole new appreciation for Fitzgerald's use of detail. I found myself reading "Gatsby" differently.
Bertsch also suggests that before reading any novel, figure out its time period. Then take a half-hour or so and read up on the decade's history.
"All of a sudden," Bertsch says, "the book becomes a lot more multilayered because you can see how it's responding to history."
Surprisingly, given my experience with being interviewed for news pieces in the past, the reporter did an extremely good job of approximating my actual statements. There's nothing to be ashamed of in the finished article, which appeared in today's "Accent" section. I was especially pleased that they asked me to come with a list of five books to recommend. Then again, I did make the mistake of using the word "poignant," which is sure to inspire Kim's ire, particularly since I had the temerity to recommend something by Thomas Pynchon.