Book Review: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan (#JazzAgeJan)

Although most Americans read The Great Gatsby in high school, Maureen Corrigan argues that this is too young an age to fully appreciate what many people call the Great American Novel. How, at 18 (or even younger), can we relate to the themes of regret and desperation to relive the past? In the introduction to So We Read On, Corrigan describes her own history with Gastby and the value she sees in re-reading it as an adult. From there, she goes on to describe “how The Great Gatsby came to be and why it endures.” 

In the six chapters of So We Read On, Corrigan discusses the abundance and significance of references to water; Fitzgerald’s life and influences; Gatsby‘s surprising connection to hard-boiled crime novels and noir films; why it is such a peculiar book; and how the novel, which was released to so little fanfare in 1925, was resurrected decades later to become a staple in high school and college classrooms. 

Using a journalistic style that I really enjoy, Corrigan inserts herself into her subject matter, describing her personal relationship with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, her opinions and how she formed them, and the overwhelming amount of research she conducted while writing this book. And in the final chapter, she questions her supposition that high school is too early to read Gatsby by returning to her own Queens, NY high school to interact with students who are reading the novel for the first time. What she finds surprises her, as she observes that the teenage students merely connect with different aspects of the book than adults do.

I seem to be one of the few people who never had to read The Great Gatsby for school. I read it for the first time during my freshmen or sophomore year of college, during my phase of exploring modern classics like The Catcher in the RyeThe Bell JarOn the RoadOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Slaughterhouse-Five. And, without any direction from teachers, I didn’t really “get” it. It was fine, but I didn’t understand why it was “great.” It wasn’t until my senior year, when I read Gatsby alongside the Fitzgerald short stories I was assigned for my Modern American Lit class that I fell in love with it and began to understand what makes it a masterpiece. Since then, I’ve been kind of obsessed.

Last year for Jazz Age January, I re-read Gatsby and devoured Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (which I loved), but my hunger to learn about this incredible little novel still wasn’t sated. I was excited to pick upa copy of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures at BEA, knowing it would make a perfect JAJ read for 2015. It really delivered, and it’s definitely worth a read even for people who have already Churchwell’s book. Both works have a different emphasis, have different writing styles, and work well to help readers form a deeper understanding of this American classic.

I adored the style of this book and am glad Corrigan chose to write it in the first person. Objective, purely historic research is fine and good, but So We Read On reads like a love letter to The Great Gatsby. As a book person, I love to hear other book people talk about their favorite novels — how they came to love them, why they are so enamored, and how their perceptions have changed over time. This book does that wonderfully; it’s very personal, but it also speaks to why we are collectively so enamored with this slim, strange novel that is so easily misinterpreted.

So We Read On is an excellent book for anyone who has read The Great Gatsby — from those who have seen something different in each of their dozen re-reads to those who have read it once and just didn’t “get” it.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.


9 thoughts on “Book Review: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan (#JazzAgeJan)

  1. Oooh glad to hear this one’s good! I want to read more literary critique/discussions this year and this one is number 1 on my list! I may wait till it comes out in paperback though.

  2. I generally enjoy when authors of nonfiction insert their personality into their work (with a few exceptions where that leads to bias) and I love books about books, so I might give this a try. I am someone who read The Great Gatsby in high school and didn’t enjoy it, so I’d like to give it a second chance anyway.

  3. I’ve had Careless People on my TBR for awhile now and love Gatsby. I reread it maybe 10 yrs ago (?) after reading it in high school. I’m not sure So We Read On would appeal to me…sounds a bit too much like a literature class (references to water, etc), but Careless People sounds more my speed!

    Also – I’m reading West of Sunset right now and I just read a little passage alluding to the fact that the lifestyle of Daisy Buchanan was based on one of Fitzgerald’s pre-Zelda GFs (Ginerva, who came from a wealthy Chicago family and lived in one of those sloping lawn houses by the lake).

  4. I think she’s right. I read Gatsby in high school and am sure I didn’t understand it at all. This book sounds fascinating.

  5. I loved this book too, but it’s a given, as Gatsby obsessed as I am. However, bookworm that I was in school, I don’t recall anything about the first time I read Gatsby, except for one scene. And when I read it again as an adult, I had even remembered that scene incorrectly. So, it is probably better read later.

  6. i think books, like many things in life, we look at differently as we age, and so they can always be worth a second examination. i love that she came to see the hs students just connected with different aspects of Gatsby instead of not being able to connect with it at all. Insightful.

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