There’s an important implicit assumption at the heart of Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. It is presumed that readers of her book have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sometime in the past, and probably not too recently. The title and the book invite us to re-read Fitzgerald, and I’m going to suggest that readers follow my cue, and (re-)read Fitzgerald before reading Corrigan’s work.
It’s not that ‘So We Read On’ does not stand on it’s own. It’s a superbly architected story told with verve, intelligence and wit. But it is a story about reading and re-reading in particular, and re-reading one particular book. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a natural choice for the great American Novel. It’s a tough act to follow. But Maureen Corrigan has managed to write the perfect follow-on, the story of the story, the storyteller, and of every reader in a hall of mirrors to infinity. It is Escher as aesthete, a literary reflection on reflection itself. Once you are in, you won’t ever want to leave. Nor will you need to.
After a gorgeous and fun introduction that meditates on all things Gatsby; the book, the writer, his life, the life of the book and the afterlife of the book, Corrigan takes us to Fitzgerald at a low point in his life, and bottom up, explores all the worlds of Gatsby. The grace and elegance on display here is subtle and elegant.
Corrigan has the storytelling knack to wear one guise after another with ultimate ease. One moment, we are with Fitzgerald and Zelda, the next, in the book itself with Gatsby and Daisy. She makes scholarship a sensuous joy as she explores archives, or the places where Fitzgerald lived. She can even duke it out with Fitzgerald himself, pulling a timeless quote from the novel and following up with her own acute insights in a manner that lets each complement the other.
Part of the reason for Corrigan’s success here is her determination to make this a book for every reader, not just critics or academics. She’s entertaining and intelligent, and marries these with an enthusiasm for Fitzgerald and his work that will sweep readers off their feet. She makes a lot of great points in a manner that lets readers share in her discoveries; for example Fitzgerald’s sharp understanding of the class system. She provides a mirror for ‘The Great Gatsby’ that readers can enter and explore at will with a generous guide.
Given that this is a book about a book, it’s surprising and nice that we never feel the presence of the elephant in the room. This may be an impression based on my personal experience. Having read ‘The Great Gatsby’ just before I read Corrigan’s book, I was already suffused with wonder at Fitzgerald’s achievement. But Corrigan’s book is never overwhelmed by its subject. It’s more of a tesseract frame about a perfectly rendered cube. She simply gets the book, and is able to convey just what it is she gets with enthusiasm and expertise.
The book itself is nicely done, with photos and maps that illustrate the life. Part of what Corrigan is creating here is a sort of time machine, one that will take us not just back into the age chronicled by the book, but as well, into the times and places and ways the author lived.
While ‘So We Read On’ is certainly a work of insightful criticism, it’s really more of a story with flourishes of critical thought. Corrigan’s path through ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is idiosyncratic and unique, but her storytelling skills are nonpareil. If you don’t read ‘The Great Gatsby’ before you read ‘So We Read On,’ rest assured that you will read it afterwards. You’ll want to meet this book word by word after reading Corrigan’s stories. And that idea, re-reading a book, has an immense power. Corrigan has the smarts to throw the switch and turn on that power, even as she guides our hands there.