Our trip to Mexico in February was roughly six days long, and for most of the trip I was humming along at a rate of one book per day. That’s insanely fast for me, and I think that’s as good of proof as any that we forced ourselves to chill this time, and not run around like crazies.
Out of the gate I picked up The Great Gatsby, which I hadn’t read since it was shoved down my throat in high school. Sarah raves about how much she loves this book, so I thought I’d give it another go. I had no expectations, as my recollection of the plot started and ended at the phrase “West Egg.” Certainly, I thought, the story would come back to me as I got deeper into the book. No such luck. It was all foreign. I effectively got to read it for first time again. Strike one for the effectiveness of high school English.
Given that this book consistently tops Greatest American Novel lists, I expected to be bowled over, and perhaps that was a little unfair. My reaction was more tempered. It certainly was a pleasure to read — I did eat it up in one afternoon — but I struggled to see why the high praise. Yet, as I do whenever I miss something in literature, I placed the blame entirely at my own feet. (More specifically: the feet of my 15-year-old self, sitting in English class rolling his eyes and thinking he’d rather be in math class. Strike two.)
Fortunately for me, I never leave home without my own personal Harvard grad. Over dinner that night, I prodded her with questions, and got a brief lesson in the beauty and brilliance of Gatsby. It made the experience of reading the book much richer. Yet I remained frustrated for not having the skills to get this stuff on my own. Sarah proposed an idea: we form our own two-person book club. We’d read the same book at the same time at roughly the same pace, and talk it out over dinners and shared L trips.
That was a couple months ago. We finally got a chance to call the first meeting of our club last week, with a book we’d heard great things about, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. I thought it’d be a good choice since it won the Pulitzer (and the Rooster), and there was a good chance that at least one of us would find it equally compelling. We bought one copy and got one from the library. Every few days, we agreed to read to a certain point and reconvene to discuss.
It turned out to be a perfect book for our inaugural assignment. If it were a pitch-perfect novel, we’d end up blabbering praise to each other for a half-hour, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. If we both found it critically flawed, it’d turn into a bitch session. But Oscar Wao is complex. It appears to frame itself as a narrative, but ends up being a character study. It’s about a culture with which I have no familiarity, yet the prose is evocative enough to make me keep reading. I found myself enjoying it, but not quite clear on the point the author was making. Perfect fodder for our club. And like before, the hour we spent talking about the book after we finished was invaluable in heightening my appreciation for it.
Next up: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the runner-up for the Rooster. I’m only one chapter in, and I’m already intrigued. I think it’s going to be a good one.
It’s a little embarrassing for me to admit that I’m a weak reader, considering the number of wicked smart, book-devouring friends I have. Never mind the fact that I’m an adult who reads quite a bit myself and should be better at this by now. So it goes. It’d be easy to blame my former English teachers — and I will, to a point — but the majority of blame lies with me. My hope is that by leaning on wicked smart Sarah, I’ll quickly begin to get more reward from all this reading business.