The Book: So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Marueen Corrigan
The Challenge: A Nonfiction book
Quick story time: when I took my American Literature course in college and we got to the Lost Generation writers, my professor walked into the classroom and asked "Ok, how many of you have read Fitzgerald?" Over half of the class raised our hands. He nodded, and then asked "How many have read Hemingway?" About five of us kept our hands up. "Right," he said, "We're reading Hemingway." Cue my being assigned The Sun Also Rises (which I heartily recommend if you haven't read it yet). A few years later, someone commented that he just knew I was a Fitzgerald person and that my sister was a Hemingway person. "Oh, but I like Hemingway too," I replied, to which I got an "of course you do" look and the response "Yes, but you're definitely more a Fitzgerald person."
I bring up these stories to illustrate two points: one (and probably the more obvious one), F Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby seem to be the more commonplace of the Roaring Twenties authors/books. After all, the 1920s tends to equal The Great Gatsby in most people's minds. Two: apparently when it comes to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, it's like Coke and Pepsi: you're only "allowed" to like one, not both. Which, to be honest, is weird. More on that later.
Maureen Corrigan is undoubtedly a Fitzgerald person. So We Read On is part biography, part literary analysis, part reader's memoir, and 100% fan homage to one of the Great American Novels. It is expertly researched---which is to be expected from someone who is a professor, is often found on NPR's Fresh Air, and was once a Pulitzer Prize Judge---and takes the reader on a journey through everything that went into The Great Gatsby and how it got onto our reading lists today. She shows that Fitzgerald wasn't always the 1920s author most often assigned as reading. From the depths of its obscurity to the heights of its fame, Corrigan constantly ties in the fortunes and failures of the novel to the life and times of its author, occasionally drawing eerie parallels. Interestingly, Fitzgerald himself is revealed to be more than the heavy-drinking, Gatsby type people so often imagine him to be. Though he was undeniably a heavy drinker, "a mean drunk", and more than a little bit of a hopeless Romantic, Corrigan shows that he was probably more of a big nerd than anything else, and was incredibly self-deprecating (occasionally to the point of annoyance).
It's incredibly refreshing to read something written by someone who clearly loves a subject, and So We Read On is undeniably that. Corrigan's enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby flies off practically every page, and the reader is left wanting to go out and re-read Fitzgerald's most famous work as soon as possible. Her analysis of its major themes is spot on, in my opinion, and her explanation of how the book came into public consciousness is fascinating. This book is a must for Gatsby fans and anyone with an interest in literature.
I will say this, though: Corrigan is not a Hemingway person. I realize that he had an abrasive personality and was not the nicest of people, but I do feel that his horribleness to Fitzgerald was, at times, overemphasized in the book. Also, a minor quibble that I had was that though I agreed with Corrigan's analysis of The Great Gatsby, I do not feel that it is the 100%-only-correct-analysis of it. Surely a book that was written to "say something about America" can say multiple things.
Minor thoughts aside, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would heartily recommend So We Read On to anyone who has an interest in Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, the Lost Generation, or literature in America. It's really well done and an engaging read that will make you rethink The Great Gatsby and see it in a new light.