From the Classroom: Gatsby, Hawthorne, and Being Sixteen

One of the last books I read in 2014 was Gabrielle Levin’s delightful novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  At one point, the main character—a somewhat odd and sometimes churlish bookseller named A.J. Fikry—tells his daughter to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”  He adds, “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

Many years ago when I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I didn’t like it very much. I remember listening to a classmate discuss how much she loved the book. “Gatsby,” she gushed, “The way he could change his entire life to win Daisy over? It’s soooo romantic.” I didn’t get it. I’d read the same book but I didn’t have the same reaction. In fact, it wouldn’t be until years later, when I was taking a graduate course on the Lost Generation, that I would come to appreciate not just the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, but also the stunning beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose.

I think of Gatsby whenever I hear my students say that they don’t like something we’re reading in class. Just last month, as we were finishing up Much Ado About Nothing, a student admitted, “I know this play is supposed to be funny, but I haven’t laughed at all.” I was puzzled. Here was a student who volunteered to read every day in class and who seemed to genuinely enjoy the play. Seeing my puzzled expression, he added, “I mean, I like the story. But I think this would have been better written in modern English.”