Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Giant Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg

I have very few memories of reading The Great Gatsby in high school.  Well, not exactly.  I have several flashes of memory of reading The Great Gatsby.

  1. I remember finding all of the characters insufferable except Jay Gatsby, which I guess is correct.  But at the time, it made turning every page feel like I was lifting a 200 lb. steel plate.
  2. I remember the book was a slim volume, but we spent weeks deciphering it like it was a set of clues as if we were our own little symbologists uncovering a Dan Brown "mystery".  
  3. I don't remember a lot of hand waving about the "examination of the American Dream", but nobody telling me what the hell that actually meant.
  4. I was somewhat obsessed with the Giant Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg because my instructor and my CliffsNotes were also obsessed with the Giant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.  
  5. We had to do some sort of class project, and ours was a skit in which we re-enacted the fatal car crash.  I was very proud of the "Dr. T.J. Eckleburg" sign I'd made with Sharpies on poster board for set decoration. I also played Gatsby, I believe.  
  6. By the time I decided to give the book another go, I had no memory of it save for
    1. The green light at Daisy's dock and Jay reaching out toward it in the darkness
    2. Somebody was hit by a car
    3. The Giant Eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg
Its fair enough.  I don't recall much about several books from high school that the curriculum masters insist we be death marched through, but educators have a huge problem on their hands.  The desire is to expose young minds to great works of literature, get them thinking critically about books, understand that there's more there than what's on the page, how we can read those stories as more than a tale (or even a cautionary tale) and develop an appreciation for literature.  And in much of that, I give my teachers credit where credit is due (although I'll be the first to say that some teachers do this better than others.  And that loving books isn't enough.  Sometimes you have to answer questions 16 year old boys have without making it clear they just dropped their grade by a full letter when said 16 year old boy suggests the main character of your favorite book was kind of a wimp and maybe a narcissist.).

Much of what is taught isn't remotely close to the parlance of the 16 or 17 year old, and that's a hurdle.  But its also often so far outside the experience of those cloistered, well-fed, well-sheltered, leave-it-to-beaver trimmed lawns and gee-shucks lifestyle that...  you can tell me about the American Dream and the corruption thereof, and meaningless, confused pursuit of women and possessions, etc...  and on paper, I think I got all that then, but - and this is where I think the educator's challenge arrives - how does that resonate with the kids you're teaching?

I know I understood the basic themes well enough that I likely got an "A" in the class, and I was able to parrot back the "the green light represented the promise of a better future, but Jay Gatsby was naively reaching for something far away while mired in his possessions, blah blah blah" that we were expected to know (I did just fine on my English AP tests, thanks).  But that's all it felt like: a series of correct answers that came from some rubric which was a bit like American Literature Bingo.  Name all the mentions of religious symbolism (no matter how inconsequential or irrelevant to the theme you're trying to reinforce) and get a prize.

No doubt its a way of understanding a book, but its a pretty odd way of understanding a book, or the symbolism sprinkled throughout.

But, as I said, I'd largely forgotten the book.  I had a vague memory of a car accident thanks to my aforementioned skit, but I couldn't remember who that girl from my class was playing when she co convincingly flopped on the classroom floor.  And I don't think I forgot it because the book isn't good (I'll get to that momentarily), but because at age 16 or so...  any joy I could have derived from reading the book was leached out in a series of boring worksheets, comprehension questions, etc... but no actual discussion of the book.

Anyway, over the years its not just that Gatsby is a touchstone of American culture, its one of those books that people who had a better experience with it than myself seem to have genuinely loved, and I've always been envious of that.  I could know it was a good book, but I had some odd flaw that made the book outside my sphere of either intellect, appreciation or understanding.

I stumbled across Roger Ebert's recent screed on his journal as he discussed an "Intermediate Reader's" version of the book, and I can only suggest you read the post yourself

A few things struck me immediately:

  1. Reading the passages brought some of it back fairly quickly
  2. I did, in fact, recall the point of the book and Fitzgerald's way with prose
  3. Had the fear of the rubric and the constant drilling for what teachers insisted we were missing (when its not clear we ever had a chance to miss it before we had the essays and assignments shoved on our agenda) made me think I'd missed something that I hadn't?
I have mixed feelings on the "easy reader edition" of the book.  I think its a travesty to teach a Reader's Digest version of a book as "literature", but I also have some sympathy for the modern high school teacher.  I cannot imagine facing down a room of 20 or more kids several sessions a day and being the only one in the room who cares about the book you're putting in the hand of the students.  Anything to get them to understand a major part of American literature...  Unfortunately, its just sad.

With my questions in mind and with the ringing of JimD in my ears (who is a HUGE Gatsby fan), I did what I do these days and I downloaded the audiobook. 

Firstly, let me eliminate any suspense by saying:  its an amazing book.  I'm sorry it took me so long to circle back around to this one.

Did I need any help "reading" the book?  No.  Did I glance at some stuff online to make sure I wasn't completely off in my reading after finishing?  Yes.  And it seems that my reading was just fine.

At age 36 versus age 16, and with water under the bridge, there's no question that the book found the resonance it lacked as a high school junior, when the American Dream was this vague thing I was supposed to be pursuing at a minimum of five years in the future - once I'd finished high school and college and checked off those prerequisites.*

I do not often mention My Direct Report (ie: My Employee), but My Direct Report is sometimes forced to sit through lunch listening to me ramble.  Last week, it was on the topic of The Great Gatsby.  Or, at least it would have been if, as soon as I said "You know what I'm listening to?  The Great Gatsby"  had she not sighed deeply and meaningfully.

My Direct Report has two literature degrees, and between one of those, she taught a year of high school.

"I love that book," she said.  "But they teach it so badly."
"How do you mean?"
"They teach it likes its this damn puzzle of symbolism, and forget that its also a book.  Sure, the symbolism is there, but its not a puzzle and it detracts from enjoying the book.  And, honestly, the symbolism is all pretty obvious, don't you think?"
I just sort of stared at her for a while.  "Yeah."

It was an odd moment, because completely unprompted, My Direct Report had more or less confirmed exactly what I had remembered from two decades prior, and with no pre-fab curriculum between me and the contents of Fitzgerald's work, I had very, very much enjoyed the book, and, I believe, I'd taken away what he'd put right there on the page for me to get.

Its unlikely I'll return to too many of the books that I rolled my eyes through in K-12 education, but it wasn't like I wasn't a reader or had a hard time grokking what I was reading at the time.  Moreover, I read plenty on my own.  And I enjoy reading on my own today.  I don't mind learning I missed something or hearing what others have to say.

The thing is, I have mixed feelings on how we approached The Great Gatsby and other books.  No author ever wrote a novel with the hopes that it would become the source of laborious high school comprehension assignments, and its hard to imagine them exactly sitting down and creating an outline where they have "insert religious symbolism HERE" in red ink during a beat.  I've been told "well, that's not what they do, but it doesn't mean you can't study it that way."  But to me, that always seemed to distill a book into these interchangeable parts and act as a tool toward reinforcing the way high school teachers teach books as puzzles more than "let's actually discuss what happens here and how Fitzgerald builds his story."  Are high schools afraid of their own curricula?  Or what will grow from discussion?  Do they not trust their professional educators enough to contain the discussion?  I've no idea.

Also:  if you haven't re-read The Great Gatsby in a while, do.  Its good stuff.

*Also, a definition of the American Dream would be nifty.  In the context of the discussions I've read, it seems to be "gaining material wealth and possessions to a point of comfort" but then the reader/ reviewer goes on to lambast Gatsby and the Buchannons for crossing some imaginary line of respectable upper-middle-classness.  And that's worth a discussion at some point, because I think the failure of my instructors to engage on this point likely led to some of why I felt I'd missed something.
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