The great obligation

Book group started this week with me sequestered in the backyard. I had about half an hour to read the last 50 pages of The Great Gatsby and I was not allowed to enter the kitchen (my kitchen) and hang out with my friends until I was done.

My friend Tiffany, who was the main book group organizer, moved to Colorado a year and a half ago and although we had spoken of keeping the book group going, it fell apart. This past weekend she came back for a visit and we decided to get together again. I had forgotten how bad I am at reading a book I’ve been told to read. It was a difficulty in high school and while I was earning my English degree. In the past two weeks I had read Pride and Prejudice, Divergent and Resurgent (Veronica Roth), Delirium (Lauren Oliver), and The Lying Game (Sara Shepard). I started Into the Woods (Tana French) and Never Have I Ever (Sara Shepard). In that same two weeks I read about 80 pages of The Great Gatsby.

So I sat outside, speed reading through great prose while people chatted and snacked inside. The last time I read the book was my senior year in high school. I knew Gatsby died and there was something about a car or car crash. One of my book club members has almost memorized the book but the rest of us were in the same boat. Over-analyzation in high school of the meaning of west vs. east, noting that white stood for purity, that weather matched the emotional states of the characters, that the green light represents hope for Gatsby and that fades when he finally gets Daisy, killed any love we might have had for the book. The book group discussion served to spark a bit of love for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.

We talked about where Gatsby would have been without his desire for Daisy driving him forward, whether any of the characters really knew how to love, and how we all hated Tom Buchanan. We also watched the movie trailer about five times. I had forgotten how nice it is to talk about how you feel about a book and get instant feedback.

We are a group of mid-twenties to early thirties women and while we all have similar backgrounds we read things differently. I thought all the characters were superficial and self-centered, even Nick who narrates from the sidelines. Others thought Nick, though an unreliable narrator, was a good person, that he had values and cared about more than just himself. We talked about how sudden the onset of Nick’s birthday was, how it changed his narrative style and how he used his age to further distance himself from the lifestyle his “friends” were living.

We read each other our favorite lines and discussed how the repressive, secretive nature of the 1920’s played such a large role in the novel. The decade was almost a character in itself. It made me want to read more F. Scott Fitzgerald and to re-read The Great Gatsby at a normal pace. Knowing the ending won’t change how well it’s written. Nick seems to get a little tired at the end, slowing down his narrative and moving on to the next decade of his life. Despite my trying to read the book as quickly as possible, the ending seemed to happen in slow motion. Gatsby taking a swim and getting shot (I honestly thought maybe he would drown himself, all I knew is that he wouldn’t make it out alive), no one wanting to attend his funeral, Nick calling Gatsby’s father by the wrong name. All of these events slowly swirled around me as my summer also drew to a close.

I think it might be best to read a book twice, especially a classic with its themes and motifs so carefully picked apart by dozens of “professionals,” if you mean to discuss it. The first time you get the story and the characters come to life. The second time you can begin to notice how East matches up with old money, lack of morals, and corruption and West has the pioneer spirit and values earning your own way in the world. If you have to take note of those often drier aspects of a novel your first time around I feel as though a resentment of good, classic fiction builds up.

We discussed getting the book group going again. With Tiffany already back in Colorado, another book group member heading of to New York, and me having a baby (I hear they are a lot of work), I’m not sure it’ll happen. But even if it’s just a few of us getting together when we can to discuss a book we all at least started I’ll be happy. The joy of talking about books will hopefully motive me to be one of the people who finish on time instead of being sent outside until I’m done with my homework.

Kelly Hannon works in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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