Charles Petzold

Don’t Just Read “The Great Gatsby”

May 10, 2013
New York, N.Y.

Something like the fifth movie version of The Great Gatsby is opening today, but it's silly to actually go see such a thing. The novel itself is quite short. You can probably read it in less time than it would take to go and see the movie, and you'll emerge from the experience much more fulfilled and satisfied because you'll have read F. Scott Fitzgerald's original novel rather what appears to be — at least judging from the trailers — a crazed 3D monstrosity by Baz Luhrmann.

Reading The Great Gatsby rather than seeing the movie might be a no-brainer, but I want to suggest something that goes a bit beyond that. Don't just read the The Great Gatsby. Read it aloud.

That's right: Gather one or more loved ones around you, move your lips while you're reading, vibrate your vocal cords, and here's what will come out of your mouth:

And so forth. You can read the entire novel aloud in 5 to 6 hours, and not only will you be happy and enlightened, but everyone listening to you will also be happy and enlightened. You'll know you have read every word without skimming over sections, and you'll never forget Fitzgerald's fine writing and penetrating insights into the nature of the American dream. (The University of Adelaide website has an online version.)

Reading books aloud was a common way for 19th century families to spend quality time together in the evenings. While that practive had died out quite a bit by the time The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, the relative shortness of the novel — and its wonderfully crafted language — has persuaded others of the benefits of reading it aloud. The late comic Andy Kaufman would sometimes read the novel aloud to audiences, and a recent play called Gatz staged by the Elevator Repair Service theatre group in New York City consisted of a character reading the entire novel. Apparently actor Scott Shepherd memorized The Great Gatsby for performing this play, and has recited the novel in its entirety on stage over 400 times.

But you don't have to read it in one long stretch. That's what chapter breaks are for. And one of the fun parts of reading aloud to others is the ability to stop and discuss what's going on, or to repeat a section if it might have been somewhat difficult or delightful.

It's helpful to avoid reading like a drone. If you want to hear a mechanical reading of a book, there are computer programs that do that for you. With practice, you can look ahead more effectively towards the end of a sentence, and get the rhythm of the whole sentence right. Also helpful is using slightly different voices for the dialog of the different characters.

Last summer, when my mother was visiting Deirdre and me, I read The Great Gatsby aloud to them. Although I had read the novel several times dating back to my teenage years, and Deirdre had read the novel before as well (my mother couldn't remember whether she had), it was a revelatory experience for the reader as well as listeners, and by the end I was so choked up I could barely get the words out, but of course I "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."