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But the various themes and meanings sprinkled throughout Gatsby were far more apparent when I read it in my early 30s, with a few more years under my belt. It was striking that F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 20-something from St. Paul (just across the Mississippi River from where I was born, raised and live currently) in under 200 pages could basically distill the entire American experience into a tale about young and drunk social climbers on Long Island during the Jazz Age.
 
My elevated comprehension of the book was natural I suppose - novels, films, songs, etc. are always going to take on different meanings as we age and our own life experiences add to our understanding of them. I’m sure if I read The Great Gatsby again in my 50s it will feel different once again.
 
Regardless, I discovered I genuinely loved reading a book that many people don’t voluntarily bother to pick up as adults, after being forced to read it in junior high or high school. It made me want to pick up some other classics I never got around to in my formative years. This is what led me to Dickens, Hemingway, and the like.
 
I’ve liked all of the classics I’ve read thus far. Some more than others, but it’s fair to say, they have attained their classic status for a reason. It’s not always a breeze getting through them, though. Most of them aren’t “fun” books in any sense of the word. After reading one, I typically read its online “Cliff’s Notes” and other essays available to make sure I understood everything that was going on. I’m not too proud to admit that sometimes I didn’t.
 
Novels, unlike music and films, tend to be a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve watched my favorite movies 10, 15 or 20 times and listened to my favorite songs dozens and dozens of times, but a book - even one you love - you’ll probably only read once or twice.
 
Though at times they can feel like a slog just to get through, I’ve never regretted reading one of these classics. When they’re effective, they stay with you the rest of your life. And not just when you’re trying to impress friends at a party with your literary knowledge.
 
The life lessons and eternal truths contained within them have a strange way of creeping up on me at random times throughout the normal workday grind and I find myself contemplating the larger picture, even if only for just a minute. I can’t say Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea had the same effect on me.*
 
* Though I thought it was funny.
 
 
 
 
Having never read one of his novels before, the first thing I noticed about Charles Dickens upon making it through the first few pages of Great Expectations was that he was a really good writer.
 
Perhaps a ridiculous statement, considering he’s one of the most acclaimed writers of all time, but I’ve found over the years that authors’ literary “genius” isn’t always immediately apparent in their literal words on the page. Greatness comes in different forms.
 
Take Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for instance. It deserves the acclaim that is regularly sent its way, but I would argue that mastering the art of local-color dialogue, in this case a Missouri drawl that only vaguely resembles the King’s English, requires a different skill set than what Dickens brings to the table.
 
In Great Expectations, it’s apparent from the word go that Dickens has mastered what few writers ever achieve - sophisticated prose that seems high-brow without being elitist, with darkly funny undertones and a sprinkling of just the right amount of cynicism.
 
Sometimes you read a book and it seems like something you could have plausibly written in your wildest dreams, if you had the time and really set your mind to it. Other times you read a novel and are 100 percent sure you couldn’t write something nearly as good given all the free time in the world. Great Expectationsdefinitely falls into the latter category.  
  
Reading it in 2014 demonstrates how much our language has devolved to what it is today. In high school, I remember learning that the average person in the 1800s had a vocabulary that was more or less double what ours is today. This struck me as sort of sad - it meant the average shoe cobbler in 1867 probably had twice the linguistic skills that I do. And I was a journalism major. Despite (or maybe because of) our significant advances in technology, people are markedly worse at speaking the language than they were hundreds of years ago.
 
Simply put, the language Dickens dealt in is a far cry from anything we use today. If he were still alive and spoke anything like he wrote, a 30-second clip of him simply talking at a dinner party would go viral and he would be hailed as a real-life version of Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World”.
 
This type of linguistic fantasyland is what I have immersed myself in in recent years, as I’ve decided to read or re-read a handful of classics by greats like Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway and Dickens.
 
My newfound interest in tackling classic literature has a rather simple explanation - I work full-time and have a 3-year-old daughter, meaning I have very little time to read. I tend to read in five- and ten-minute increments before falling asleep every night, meaning I can usually make it through about 2 or 3 books a year. So I figure if I’m only going to get to a few of them, I might as well make it worth my while and stick to the classics.
 
This trend started after I re-read The Great Gatsby on a whim. Like many people, I originally read it in my high school English class. Though I was a young pup of about 16, I liked the book and think I even grasped one of the novel’s main themes - the idea that people go through life unsuccessfully trying to recreate their past happinesses while continuously dreaming of impossible tomorrows. It was a concept that seemed true to life, even for a 16-year-old.
 
 
 
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By
 Marc Ingber
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Vhcle Books, Issue 15
Steinbeck Without a Syllabus: 
Checking Out the Classics by Choice life design music photography home us film art fashion global notes archive books
Marc Ingber is a communications specialist and writer for a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber
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