A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.
--from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3
Friends and colleagues have grumbled at me over the years, for being openly indifferent about The Great Gatsby. Thanks to a class discussion about books as physical objects, I discovered a single page in the text (the book) that might be the beginnings of salvaging the whole thing for me.
Why have I resisted Gatsby for so long? First, it's all the symbolism! Crammit down your throat symbolism. I could forgive that, though, if it weren't for the people of average intelligence for whom the book is a testament to what they think is their own interpretive genius. The fact that there are so many easy ways into the novel (er, symbols), means it has a following of people who habitually read things that are easy to read, and perhaps are only capable of really getting into reading things that are easy to read. I've come to realize that this is not a flaw in itself. No fault of Fitzgerald's that he writes simply and in modern English. So to better put my finger on my distaste, it's one of those not liking the fans situations.
This in no way means that there are not thousands of well-read, highly intelligent people who love the book. I think most of them do, actually. Unfortunately no fellow student of literature has ever presented me with a critical defense of the thing. Besides the aforementioned causes of my aversion, I am, again, mostly indifferent, and therefore open to argument. I just don't see what's to get excited about. I welcome any illumination on this topic. As long as you're not going to tell me it's all about the symbolism.
You know, this might just come down to "to each her own," so I hope I can be forgiven. I study 19th century British novels, I have a newly flourishing fondness for Milton, and I like my 20th century mean and dirty. Gatsby isn't any of those. Maybe I'm flawed because I need to read things that contain a certain percentage of either obsolete or offensive vocabulary.
Now that you're cursing me, vile Gatsby-doubting miscreant that I am, I'll tell you why I like this page. And you can be sure it has nothing to do with the "owl-eyed man" and his likeness to the big dumb eyes on the billboard (although I do like his dialog, and I like that he shows up at the funeral). I like it because it only made sense to me once I knew what the uncut pages mean. You see books are put together out of lots of folded up pieces of paper, not one page at a time. Duh, right? But we children of industry never really think about how the top fold gets opened up. So after all this talk of books as things in my bibliography class, we held and molested an old uncut Italian book that the professor had brought in. Obviously he's never read it, but he keeps it for just such an occasion -- letting graduate students manhandle a book in its pre-20th century pre-machine-cut form, and ruminate on all the implications of page cutting. What involvement the readers of yesteryear would have had with their books! A personal, tactile involvement. Violent even, in a way.
The fact that Gatsby did not cut the books was actually a testament to his character -- as disingenuous as he may be, as easily as he could have afforded to pay his help to cut all the pages open, as careful pains he took to stock his massive library with real books, "pages and everything," he's not going to pretend he's read them. That would be going too far. I love that the man calls it "realism."
This page is also evidence, to me, that books are worth going back to every few years, especially ones you had trouble with. I've read it three times (in sophomore year of college, last) and I'm considering another go at it, just to be sure I'm still indifferent. If I missed this scene, maybe I missed something else -- and it'll be fresh in my mind when the Gatsby defenders attack. It's only nine chapters. And yeah, it's an easy read.