SO WE READ ON: How "The Great Gatsby" Came to Be and Why It Endures, by Maureen Corrigan. Little, Brown and Co., 342 pp., $26.
You'd be forgiven if, on seeing the title of Maureen Corrigan's new book, you roll your eyes and sigh, "Another book about 'The Great Gatsby'? Enough already!" After all, Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air" and a lecturer at Georgetown University, is either late to the party -- last year saw the release of Baz Luhrmann's much-hyped film adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio -- or early for the novel's 90th birthday commemoration next year. Even Corrigan acknowledges what she calls "the Blob -- the spreading ooze of Fitzgerald books, articles, films and artifacts that expand exponentially with each passing year."
Still, here she is, spreading more ooze around. Her title, which riffs on the memorable last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book, explains why: Despite "the Blob," despite the fact many of us were introduced to "The Great Gatsby" in dreary high school English classes, we keep on reading it. "In an ordinary year," she reports, "approximately 500,000 copies of the novel are sold (including 185,000 copies of 'Gatsby' in e-book format), but that figure more than tripled in 2013."
It was not always so. When Scribner released "The Great Gatsby" in 1925, this tale of an ambitious bootlegger who dreams of winning back the love of his youth was greeted with disappointing reviews and lackluster sales. "F. Scott Fitzgerald's Latest a Dud," pronounced the New York World. The book had a first print run of 20,870; copies from a second run of 3,000, Corrigan says, were sitting unsold in the warehouse when the author died in 1940.
Much of "So We Read On" -- a spirited but rambling brief for "Gatsby's" greatness -- is devoted to the novel's fluctuating fortunes, along with Fitzgerald's own. His biography has been told many times before: the Jazz Age party lifestyle, wife Zelda's tragic mental collapse, the fruitless years in Hollywood, the desperate alcoholism and early death. Corrigan doesn't have much to add, but she brings large reserves of sympathy while recognizing that the insecure writer could be "a high-maintenance friend."
In re-examining the book itself, Corrigan marvels at how "elaborately patterned" the novel is, with Gatsby and Daisy's reunion taking place in the "dead center." She enumerates the many motifs that readers have found in the text: time, temperature, geographical direction, names, music, vision, vehicles, birds, colors and mythology. She makes a special case for the novel's water symbolism, starting with the bay that separates the fictional towns of West Egg and East Egg (universally agreed to be Long Island's Manhasset Bay) and ending with the fateful swimming pool at Gatsby's mansion. She even argues that "The Great Gatsby" is a "near relation of the hard-boiled novel" as practiced by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
This kind of literary interpretation can feel like a parlor game, and in her zeal to illuminate the book's "inexhaustible" richness, Corrigan sometimes overindulges. Nevertheless, she rightly recognizes that Fitzgerald's musical prose -- "a detached poetic style that elevates but doesn't obliterate ordinary American language" -- is the gift that keeps on giving.
Not everyone is a true believer, of course, and Corrigan is unlikely to convince the heretics. (One of them, critic Kathryn Schulz, published an essay in New York magazine titled "Why I Despise 'The Great Gatsby.'" Corrigan's response: "Despise, really?") For the rest of us, "So We Read On" offers the pleasure of reimmersing ourselves in a book that does seem strangely inexhaustible. And who knows? Maybe some of those who raced through it in high school will try it again. I know I was sent back to my well-thumbed copy, and those incantatory opening lines: "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. ... "