There is an inherent danger to re-reading your favorite book, especially if it’s not a book you re-read frequently, if years have passed since last time you’ve read it. What if, in rereading, it does not hold up as the thing you have built up in your heart?
At the tail end of 2016, I reread The Great Gatsby, one of the rough handful of books I consider a favorite out of the many books I love and admire, and out of the many, many more books I’ve read.
And it wasn’t exactly how I remembered...
I first read The Great Gatsby my senior year of high school for my AP Literature class, and was very moved by it. By this point in time, I had found a love for literature. What I don’t mean is a love for classics, or a love for the literary genre. I mean a love for that ephemeral stuff that makes a story impactful in the emotional, meaningful way because of character and theme and language and whatever else it may be.
The first book that put me onto “literature” as defined above (and not just the big reader I was who consumed a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries) was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which I read for an 8th grade literature class. It was about this time I started writing, having realized the impact a book could have. Zoom ahead to 12th grade, reading The Great Gatsby in second semester, about to graduate, having been accepted into an undergraduate creative writing program, The Great Gatsby re-invigorated that passion. My passion had by no means died and there were quite a few other books that I read in that time that I was very enthused about (The last few Harry Potter books came out while I was in high school after all).
I reread The Great Gatsby once in college for a class. I’ve read So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan, which is a fantastic piece of history and literary criticism surrounding The Great Gatsby, it’s creation, and its rise to popularity and acclaim after being a flop during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. I have been meaning to reread The Great Gatsby for many years in my post-undergrad life, and for such a short book, that should not be a difficult task, but an ever-growing to-read list kept me focused on reading new things instead.
I picked it up at the end of 2016, thinking it would be a quick read that would help me polish off my goodreads challenge goal for the year. It ended up taking me about a week to read. I struggled with it, and for most of the book, it wasn’t as inspiring as I had built it up to be in my memory. Which can be quite a panic-y realization when you’ve been telling people it's one of your favorite books for almost a decade now. For god’s sake, I have Great Gatsby bag, necklace, notebook, t-shirt… and a lot of strong (mixed) opinions on the Baz Luhrmann adaptation.
Basically, I was having an identity crisis.
During this week of expecting the prose or whatever ephemeral-great-literature-stuff to pull me, make me not want to put the book down as opposed to forcing myself to pick the book up, I came to a moment of zen.
Now, I know I am borrowing from other people who have had said similar things, so I fully acknowledge my lack of originality. I will be saying it anyway.
Sometimes you find the right book at the right time. Perhaps if you picked it up years earlier or years later it would have meant nothing or much less to you. That’s one reason people have different reactions to books. We find different things in them -- and beyond personal taste -- the broader circumstances of our lives can affect our appreciation.
This means, if you pick up a book you deemed a favorite from times past, and reread it, and it’s not what you remember… it does not mean you were wrong before. Or that you are wrong now. It just means you are different person and different reader.
I think this is often true with books we read when we are young, whether a child or a teenager or even just a younger adult than we are now. By virtue of the fact that the older you are the more well read you are versus your younger self. The older you also has more refined tastes. You’re more aware of poor prose or cliches or whatever else. A book that may have been fresh and different and life-changing at sixteen might just been a run-of-the-mill book in the larger scheme of things, and it might read one like to, if reread at a latter date. But that’s okay.
If a favorite book doesn’t stand up for a rereading, for whatever reason, whether quality or personal change in taste or it not hitting that sweat emotional spot or something undefinable, you can still call it a favorite. If it meant something to you once, if it impacted your life or worldview, then why can’t it still be a favorite? It defined part of who you are.
Now, thankfully for me, I hit a certain passage near the end of The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is getting into his pool right before being (spoilers, but really, I think this is past the spoilers expiration date) shot and killed. It’s this very beautiful passage about his realization about all of his efforts up this point. And while I didn’t reread the entirety of this novel often, I had, throughout the years, many times, flip to these pages and read this part, whether quietly or aloud.
Getting to this passage gave me some clarity, because this was the part of the novel, this read around, that made me fall for The Great Gatsby. I think the ending in general, from that point on, was really good, and I really liked it this read through too. It’s one of those books where the ending is the most powerful part, but the ending doesn’t stand without the rest of the book building up to it.
I guess the lesson is that we can have nostalgia about books too. Maybe they can’t stand up to what they were when we first deemed them a favorite, but the surprise and joy of that first read can never be replicated. But that’s not the most important thing.
Literature is meant to affect you, and if it has, then it’s done its job. And if a book was a favorite for you at any time in your life, it’s okay to let it stand on it’s pedestal, because what it meant for you then has influenced you and is an ingredient in who you are now.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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