Of Classics, Teenagers, and Relatability

When I was a teenager I went through this phase where I wanted to read all the classics. Since I was home schooled, and my veracious reading kept my mother from requiring any reading, I didn't have the usual classic literature disdain that my friends did. So I set about in my usual methodical way to read the classics. The methodology was this: Go to the classic literature section of the library. Read all books in the section alphabetically by author. This was an okay system, except that as I went, I didn't ever go backwards. Therefore, most of the books that everyone had to read for school, which were usually checked out, I didn't read. I read almost all of Dickens, one right after the other, but missed Of Mice and Men. Ayn Rand was always gone, although somehow I manage to snag The Fountainhead at one point. I read Frankenstein but missed Dracula. The list goes on and on. Over the years I have slowly been filling in the gaps with Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, and most recently The Great Gatsby.

The impression I always had before reading this book was that it was a great book for teens. I don't know why, but that was how it was presented to me. A book for teenagers to read and relate to, an American classic with prose so verbose that you could read it over and over again and always find something new.

After reading it my impressions are thus: The majority of the characters are made up excessively rich, spoiled, needy, pompous, narcissists, who all have a pension for partying and traveling into the city whenever they are bored. Although one would think these are traits that a teenager may be able to relate to, let us remember this is written in an era where being rich meant you did nothing. The women in the book are vapid with little thought beyond their own physical happiness, which never involves sex mind you. Nick Caraway is a unreliable narrator, who supposedly works although we never actually see him doing so. Everyone lives in giant houses right outside the city and whenever the mood strikes them, they drive into New York to lounge about in hotel lobbies talking about more inane things.

I understood the weakness of the characters, but I don't think a teenager will. Not because teens are stupid, but because the weaknesses are those of adults. Teens need some strength in their characters because they see strengths in themselves. They haven't become so jaded as to think only terrible things can happen to themselves. Most Young Adult books these days have happy endings, or at least hopeful endings, Gatsby is none of that. In fact, I would say that all the characters in this story are mostly unhappy people from beginning to end.

Sure there are themes that can be discusses such as drinking, drunk driving, infidelity, more drinking, extreme wealth, and the importance of having a big house, but I am very glad I did not run across this book as a teenager. I don't think I would have appreciated it on any level and I suspect that it is books like this that turn teenagers off of reading. Heaven forgive us for there are so many wonderful books out there that teenagers will fall in love with and we give them this, telling them that they should not only understand it but love it for it is "an American classic after all".

If you don't mind, I think I am going to go read Oliver Twist now. At least that one was exciting.


Jenn Hill said...

I was one of those who had to read this in high school. I read in junior year in AP English Language (along with The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway). I don't remember much of the story because our main focus was how the story was told - that verbose prose you pointed out to your readers. The book is beautifully written, but I loathed it because the characters sucked balls so much (much like everything I've read by Hemingway).

Yes, I agree with you on the story itself. But it is a book to be familiar with due to how, not what. :D