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.


Anonymous said...

Happily - or sadly - I just like to read. High school and college literature studies were lost on me. While I rarely take the time to disect and intellectually analyze a book, I am lucky enough to really enjoy the solitude, relaxed concentration and personal engagement involved in reading a good book. If the author is making moral or philosphical points in the story, they better be pretty obvious, because I am not going to dig for them. {I guess that makes me pretty shallow :-)}


Shouting Hippo said...

It's like synchronicity. Or serendipity. Or something. Meaning that I found a relevant link that you might like to read. Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog, no less. But to the point, Heath points to a Salon article, "How Finland became an education leader (how the nation achieved extraordinary successes by deemphasizing testing)."

Anonymous said...

I love, love The Great Gatsby. It is in essence one of the best examples of American literature. I've read The Great Gatsby all the way through about 20 times and hundreds of times looking up passages from the novel for some reason or another. People are always down on literature because they think it's high-falutin' and has no application in life. The Great Gatsby and Chinatown, the movie, taught me more about society and life than football, videogames and reading actual historical events.

I don't think you should beat yourself up too much for not appreciating The Great Gatsby. When F. Scott Fitzgerald finally got it published, it was a slow seller and was basically viewed as a failure not approaching his first novel This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald essentially died broke and considered his life a failure. The novel wasn't recognized as the work of genius it is until much later after his death. Society rediscovered Gatsby in the 50's and Fitzgerald didn't get consideration as a "Great American Author" until the 60's. Which goes to show you the perceptions on what is good art evolves and the really good art stands the test of time.

Fitzgerald's greatest gift is that his prose is incredibly poetic yet still very easy to understand. He's not Prouse and that's what makes him better.

I could write passages about The Great Gatsby but wanted to touch on Ebert's critique. He's right, absolutely right. If you as a high schooler can't read The Great Gatsby and understand what it's trying to do, a concise "reader" isn't going to give you the proper understanding of the novel. If we want our education system to resemble the Chinese where everyone just memorizes bullet points and formulas lets have at it. But our academic system is based off of Western learning principles from the English university system. It emphasizes scholarship, logic and research. These principles drive innovation. It teaches students how to tackle a problem.

If American education is now to the point where we need a powerpoint presentation for The Great Gatsby then just run up the white flag now. I went through the exact same public education system as everyone else. If society deplores the state of our education system, it's not the students that are the problem essentially, it's society itself. Society has made it absolutely clear that education is not needed or nor is admirable for success. We celebrate and pay ungodly sums of money to reality TV stars, New Jersey illiterates, professional athletes and so-called "musicians" that sample other people's compositions to create a rap. Please, maybe if we actually valued English literature then students would actually pay attention. We created a valuation system that anyone can look on TV or out the window and see. Education is not valued no matter what politicians and parents say. Look at the money spent on football as opposed to an English literature program in high school.


The League said...

I don't have children (especially children in school), and I haven't been in a high school classroom since 1993. And even then it was AP English, so it was a crowd that WANTED to be reading the books in front of us. But given what I know about TAKS testing, and the needs for standardized AP testing, I'm not sure what's going on in the modern classroom. All I know is that the teachers I had would have looked at you askance had you tried to slide some Easy Reader version to them as a teaching tool.

I also think the sports budget argument is a tough one, and we should save that for another day. But, yeah, it shard not to feel education in general is devalued, and not replaced with no-how, experience or anything useful. Camera-time and photgeneity, yeah.

In the end, I think I DID understand the book the first time around, but it was almost taught in a way that suggested that no matter what I said, I would keep being told I didn't REALLY get it. But, at the same time, there's a difference between understanding the story and experiencing its resonance, and I don't think any amount of short essays or skits were going to convey that upon me so much as 20 more years of hanging about this rock we call home.

The League said...

And to Shouting Hippo: Thanks for the article. Its an interesting read. I have worries about our ability to overcome what we were taught about America's place in the world as children and our inability to fight for that place rather than believing its divine providence that will right itself. And its going to take more than people working out their grudges about high school by way of cutting education.

J.S. said...

I barely remember this book, either. I definitely need to read it again. Interesting post.

The League said...

I think it will be best if at every opportunity, you imagine Gatsby is really NTT.

Anonymous said...

JS, I would highly recommend a re-read of The Great Gatsby. Or at least as Ryan did, find a great audio-book of it. There are so many dimensions to the novel and Fitzgerald is just a great writer. His prose is miles better then so many writers. I learned to "write" by reading and re-reading Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. The light came on when I read The Great Gatsby because Fitzgerald was like a great fencer, his technique and style in prose alone was fantastic. You can see his influence in American writing through contemporary fiction like John Irving and David Foster Wallace.

I apologize for my rant about education but it really gets to me when society, in general, is so two-faced about education. Sure, we have honors programs and magnet schools and all that but in the end our valuation system is whacked. Let's just be honest about it. In high, as a poor immigrant student who realized the only way I was going to get out of my podunk town and make something out of myself was to study as hard as possible to get an education. My school district did a great job of providing an honors program to help teach AP and accelerated students. Even then, I realized the real dichotomy of the world. The varsity running back in our D1 football team had a full ride scholarship offer to Duke. Our valedictorian in a D1 school who was a National Merit scholar did not get a full ride to Rice. She had to file for some loans. Kids realize the dichotomy. Parents talk about how valuable education is and how you should get good grades and all that. Kids know it doesn't matter if you're good looking enough or can toss a football 75 yards. If we really valued the engineers, scientists and great scholars of our great country we would celebrate them more than we do but we don't. I always pose this scenario to people: Poll any ten people in any room you encounter. Ask them who was the last 2 Dallas Cowboy starting quarterbacks. Then ask them which 2 invented the TCP/IP protocol or packet-switching technology for the Internet? See which question they can answer. (Answers are John Kitna & Tony Romo; Vint Cerf & Bob Kahn).


The League said...

I don't talk about it anymore because it seems to upset a lot of people, but 10 years ago I was struck by how much press coverage the Academy Awards were receiving (a FILM academy that's really just a made up mailing list) and the Nobel awards were getting little blurbs in the paper and on TV with almost "news of the weird" type coverage.

Its not that I don't want to read who won the awards (and I do online the next day every year). Its that I find it ridiculous that a billion people tune in to watch awards handed out to people who spent a year or two on something that, 9 out of 10 times, will be forgotten within 3 months. Also - while acting and directing isn't exactly easy, its also nothing like countless hours in a lab pushing the boundaries of human knowledge to make the world a better place.

Yes, sports are overblown. The benefits of throwing a good pass are ridiculous, but it does also get kids into college and, in good programs, get them educated. But I also sat with a kid whose parents owned a tire recycling something or other. None of them had ever been to school, they didn't really know why this guy wanted to go to school. And they absolutely had no money to send him to school.

This guy carried a 4.0 at UT Austin and loved the fact he was 3rd string so he wouldn't get injured and could go on and have a career after college. I can't speak to your colleague who went to Rice, and it is unfortunate. I'd never argue that one at all.