I figure reading the chosen few masterpieces is one of those requisite steps to enlightened adulthood, like lying about how much I floss or pretending to like endive. So in my jumpy, schizophrenic manner, I’ve attempted to get through a series of seminal texts, only to finish each book bemused about what exactly it is I’m supposed to have absorbed.
Take for instance, my ill-fated encounter with Anna Karenina. As much as I wanted to finish that book a transformed being, the only lasting impression it left on me was a question of indisputable stupidity. I couldn’t stop wondering what would happen if Anna Karenina lived in the age of cell phones. Would she text message Vronsky from the platform? Ring him till she reached his voicemail, and leave him a frantic, warbled declaration of unease? He could’ve gotten these messages within seconds and been able to respond appropriately. Maybe she would’ve avoided that whole unpleasant business with the train. Maybe she would’ve ended up in a much more boring novel, in which the protagonists retire to the Russian countryside to exercise with water noodles and eat all the potato laden foods they desired. My life is so inundated with instant forms of communication I had a hard time accepting a narrative hinging on the sluggish arrival of a telegram. This grand revelation of mine made me feel terrible – what was supposed to be entryway into academic maturity turned out to be my opportunity to debase what many regard as the finest novel ever written into something that vaguely resembled stoner Sparknotes.
After this failed attempt, I remained haunted by the question of how to incorporate larger understandings of worth into my own personal interactions with great works of literature. It was with this feeling of trepidation that I begrudgingly went forth with a rereading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To my surprise, this time around I focused less on the plight of James Gatz and more on the curious scribbling I found in the margins. I discerned from the heart studded cursive name inscribed on the cover page that my used copy had been previously owned by a one Ms. Katy D. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that Katy D. was one of the droves of high school students each year required to read this book, most likely proposed by their teacher as THE GREAT AMERICAN CLASSIC and QUITE POSSIBLY THE BEST BOOK EVER WRITTEN EVER.
I liked what Katy D. had to say about it, mostly because her notes revealed a very earnest attempt to understand what about this novel justified her reading it. Most of her commentary was framed as questions, so much so that I could almost hear the lilting affect common in girls my age echoing from the page. In the beginning chapters, the pages are lined with inquiries like “Gatsby is rich?” and more emphatic declarations that read: “RACISM!!!”, “ADULTERY!!” or “OLD MONEY.” Her characterization of Gatsby was puzzling in its ambiguity, with notes like: “Gatsby is EXCITING,” “Gatsby has a magical, understanding smile” and “Sex! But not for Gatsby.”
The plot thickened when I discovered that I was not the second person to own this particular copy, but the third. In the coming pages there appeared a second set of writing, a more delicate and composed scrawl beneath that of Katy’s. Where Katy wrote “PENIS!!”, this anonymous reader had carefully written in small, elegant cursive “homoerotic desire.” I realized with delight that I had stumbled upon something great. Here, in front of me, were two readers simultaneously yet separately forming an interpretation about what made this book so wonderful.
The commentaries converged in one climactic moment at that point in the novel when Daisy bursts into tears over Gatsby’s carefully folded pile of shirts. Katy D.’s response to this cryptic incident was unconventional: she quoted Crosby, Stills and Nash. In her loopy handwriting was written: “If you can’t be with the one you love, you should love the one you’re with. Can’t be with Gatsby?” In tiny, careful penmanship I could see the second mystery reader had drawn an arrow up to Katy D.’s pointed observation and simply written a monosyllabic note of agreement underneath. “Word,” it read, and moved to participate, I put a check mark and a star by the passage, as a way of honoring this brief moment of interweaving marginalia.
Katy D. and her subsequent readers might have different views on this book–Katy D. envisioning it like a scripted reality show, in which disaffected characters are left to awkwardly set their lives to sentimental soundtracks and have parties in which no one appears to be having much fun; me envisioning a film adaptation titled the “the Great Catsby”, where all the characters are cats, only to be disappointed to learn that a Korean cartoonist had beaten me to the punch–but at the end of it, I believe all three of us came to the same conclusion. This book had filled our lives with text. Whether or not we decided it was of any importance didn’t matter as much as the act of interpretation itself. We all went through the task of accommodating this book into the narrative of our own lives, assessing its meaning in relation to what we believed to be of great significance. And within this process, we developed a personal relationship to a novel that complimented any objective claim of cultural value. How was it that I rediscovered I loved this book? Because it showed me that in the end, everything boils down to the simplest unit of expression: words, words, words, or rather, “word.”