I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby. It’s a book I read for the first time in high school, maybe in my junior or senior year, I no longer remember which. I saw the book recently at a used bookstore and had to have it; I just wanted to experience it again. It’s one of those books that comes up a lot in conversation. It’s one of those books that comes up in other books. It was one of those books that came up a lot in my MFA workshops. In those discussions I nodded and smiled as though I knew what we were pointing to in the book that made it relevant to whatever piece of writing we were reading that week, but honestly, I couldn’t remember much about The Great Gatsby. I remembered the eyes on the cover, that there was a lot of 1920s excess, and that there was a character named Daisy.
I did remember that it was one of the rare books assigned in high school English classes that I liked. I wondered if I would still like it these years later. In fact, I do. I’m loving it. I love the writing, which is perhaps not why I liked it in high school — I was less interested in good writing then than I was in good stories. It seems now an odd book to give to high schoolers: There are a lot of illicit love affairs going on, and a lot of drinking and partying. Which is probably why I liked it.
But, now, the writing! It’s at once careful and over the top and I’ve been copying bits into my notebook to savor. (p. 125: “Her voice struggled on through the heat, beating against it, moulding its senselessness into forms.”) I don’t do this often, copy sentences into notebooks, though sometimes I think that I should. I once had a writing teacher say that to become a better writer you should copy down the words of writers you admire. The idea being that the act of writing out good writing in your own hand will eventually impact your own writing; that you will channel the voice of the admired author as you write.
It’s an old-school idea that doesn’t account for computers and makes writing longhand seem quaint, but still, it’s an idea that has some merit. Yet I don’t copy Fitzgerald’s words because I hope to channel him; I just like some of the phrases and I want to remember them. (p. 26: “…I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”) I do this occasionally and am always grateful when I return to the quotes much later, when the details and the emotion of the book are faded.