Most Overrated Book
Okay, get out the pitchforks and all that other stuff, because the book that I’m claiming to be the most overrated book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now there are lots of books that have probably sold more copies (read: Twilight) and other books have gotten famous because of their controversial or revolutionary nature (Ulysses, Lolita), but The Great Gatsby is the book popularly considered The Great American Novel and named number 2 on the list of the 100 best books ever written by the Modern Library. The problem? It’s not that good.
Now, the first thing I want to mention about Gatsby is something my students told me when I was student teaching. One of my students raised his hand while we were learning about The Great Gatsby and said, “Mister, why are we reading this book?” So then of course I replied that it was considered one of the most important American novels. The student then said, “But nothing really happens and we don’t know nothing about where they are.” I had a response ready of course, the stock one that it’s about the American Dream and how not letting go of things can lead us to lots of hurt. And this is true and the book illustrates this concept very well. What my student said about the book may not be exactly true, but I guess the thing that struck me about what my student said was that even though he was wrong, in a way I felt like he was right. I recently went back and re-read Gatsby to see if I could see something that I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t see anything new this time around. In fact, this time I ceased to feel anything after I had read it. I’m not sure if I felt anything the first time reading it, but I definitely ceased to feel any sort of feeling for the story Fitzgerald told, except for a simple admiration of the writing itself.
The question of action in Gatsby troubles me more than anything, because while events do occur, most of these events take place while the characters are sitting down talking, standing and talking, or walking around and talking. The only place I remember events taking place in the form of action are when they are driving Gatsby’s car to and from the city. In defense of this fact, I recently read an essay discussing the paralytic elements and themes of Gatsby, which actually makes a lot of sense. But that notwithstanding, I still find the static nature of the book to be extremely boring. Not to mention, the way the biggest moment of the book happens seems like such a contrivance that it’s hard for me to look the other way. The moment I speak of is when (SPOILER ALERT) Tom Buchanan’s mistress is run over by Gatsby’s car with Daisy at the wheel.
I’ve criticized Gatsby quite a bit, but I really do admire certain things about it. The central image of the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock is simply perfect. Not to mention, the word choice and sentence construction is almost second to none. If I were to have a class of writing students read a writer for sentence fluidity and word usage alone, I would assign them tons of passages from Fitzgerald, particularly this book. But I have to say I believe that calling this book the best American novel ever written is a large overstatement.