I recently assigned F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to my graduate creative writing students. More than a couple students told me they’d already read it. Implicit in that comment was the query—why bother reading it again?
It’s a good question. Why read something again? There are hundreds of thousands of books, why spend time with a book that you already know how it will end?
Most students read The Great Gatsby in high school and they probably read it in an English class. Judging by the free online study guides and available literature essays for sale, the discussions in the English class probably focused on themes, motifs, symbols and the plot. (Questions posted by presumably high school students make me wonder if they even read the book—“Tom Buchanan’s violence was shown in which situation?” posted by assem k, July 17, 2011).
I assigned it in order to look closely at Fitzgerald’s sentences. (His similes! His metaphors and rhythms!)
Which points to one obvious reason why you would read a book again—at different stages of your life, you read for different purposes. As students earning their MFA, interested in becoming published writers, we were going to read it this time as writers.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby at least seven times. A friend of mine religiously rereads Melville’s Moby Dick every year. Another good friend is a believer in visiting Chekhov's short stories at least every six months. What happens when you re-read? You already know the story, you know how it will end. So the fundamental question that creates forward motion—what happens next?—is gone. That’s no small thing. That query is the main force that compels a reader to keep turning the page. Curiosity, it turns out, is a basic human drive.
So, how do you reread when that question is gone?
The act of reading becomes, at least for me, more closely aligned with reading as a writer—my curiosity is not linked to plot, but rather the burning question—how does this writer do this? Why this structure? Why this scene? And how do you write sentences like these:
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.” (p.8).
Stripped of the question—what happens next?—I’m left with the sheer pleasure of language, of standing in admiration and awe of well-crafted sentences, of attempting to create such wonder with words in my own writing.
Causes Nina Schuyler Supports
National Resources Defense Council