One of my favorite things about Madrid so far has been its culture of “librerías.” The city is spotted with bookstores that double as fully-stocked bars or coffeeshops, and oftentimes both. They each have their own personalities and their own energies: Cervantes y Compañía (the Spanish equivalent of Shakespeare & Company) has James Dean posters, secret caves and fairy lights; El Dinosaurio Todavía Estaba Allí (“the dinosaur was still there”) has a lovely little restaurant and specializes in poetry books; J&J serves homemade bagels and one euro mimosas for brunch, nestled in between stacks of books and overflowing coffee tables. On my first day of classes, my literature professor told us to go buy our first assigned novel from Tipos Infames and, while we were at it, enjoy a vino blanco or a café con leche.
If you know me, you’ll know that this is the kind of culture I was built for. It’s a constant joke amongst my friends back in Boston that I would live in a coffeeshop if I could. The atmosphere is soothing for me, it helps me think and focus, and I like being surrounded by like-minded people where it’s understood that while we’re existing in one shared environment, we are occupied with our own personal spaces. I even wrote an article about the impact of this aesthetic atmosphere for my school’s magazine The Buzz (pg 73-75). Pairing this with the ability to browse and buy books at my leisure is nothing short of paradise.
These spaces create escapes within themselves, where you can hide away with a novel and settle into a sofa, surrounded by the chatter of strangers or the whir of espresso machines. Of course, they build on the age-old tradition of reading as an escape—maybe even the OG escape. One of the first things I remember learning in elementary school (particularly with the aid of Harry Potter & company) was that books help you play pretend, they take you to a place you had never even imagined could exist. As I got older, this became a much more serious business. Franz Kafka once wrote in a letter to Oskar Pollak: “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
In the back of my head, I always kind of knew that I’d end up as an English major. But the first time I remember actively thinking oh god, this is a fate I cannot escape, was when I read "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My love for this book is widely documented; ask my English teacher from junior year of high school, and she’ll tell you that I defended this book against critical classmates as if I had written it myself.
so much reading. I miss you, Fitzgerald. Gatsby please come back to me— Callie Ahlgrim (@calliebeaan) December 13, 2011
if the AP lit essay can be applied to gatsby I will literally start singing hallelujah in the middle of the exam— Callie Ahlgrim (@calliebeaan) April 29, 2013
*buys ten new books* *rereads the great gatsby*— Callie Ahlgrim (@calliebeaan) October 26, 2013
the grand question of my english major career is rapidly becoming: what novel or literary theme can I NOT relate back to the great gatsby— Callie Ahlgrim (@calliebeaan) April 15, 2015
(Update: you better believe I wrote my AP Lit essay on Gatsby. And it was amazing.)
There are a lot of reasons why I dub this my favorite book. I have a soft spot for Fitzgerald in general; I have a steadily growing collection of books by and about Fitzgerald (and his wife Zelda), and I have only failed to read about two of them. I love his flowery language and the way he makes shocking, heart-aching affection sound effortlessly charming. I love how he creates realistic (if not always likable) characters. I love how he writes as though he knows more than us, as if there’s something unspoken that he understands about the nature of life, which his readers can merely attempt to grasp.
The story of Jay Gatsby, however, is particularly interesting to me. I could write whole essays on this subject (and I have written many), but I’m going to focus on one aspect in particular: after three deaths and startling levels of emotional trauma culminating to create what may seem like a cautionary tale, the narrator, Nick, sides with Gatsby. He praises the man’s misguided pining. He concludes that without obsession, there is nothing at all.
In Fitzgerald’s 1920s, not one person is pleased with their current reality. Nothing is ever enough for these characters: the partygoers jealously slander the mansion owners who host them; Gatsby needs Daisy to disavow every loving emotion that wasn’t inclined towards him; Tom and Daisy are simply bored with their never-ending good fortune. The 1920s were all about the need to adorn, the desire for excess. Everyone is obsessed with having more. If you don’t have the most, then you don’t matter.
Both obsession and nothingness turn out to be quite complicated concepts. The obsession with Daisy drives Gatsby nearly mad, and also casually ends up ruining his life. One could argue (extremely easily) that Fitzgerald warns us about the obsession with wealth and beauty and the power that comes with them.
In Shakespeare’s play "King Lear", the title character (spoiler alert) famously loses everything that he had ever laid claim to. He is stripped of his wealth and beauty and power, stripped of the illusion of his doting family, and, eventually, his only source of true love: his daughter Cordelia. Now, in the first act, Lear implores Cordelia to prove her love for him so as to assert her place in his inheritance. She refuses. Lear retorts, “nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”
This plea to prove her love is remarkably similar to Gatsby’s plea to Daisy, when he asks her to say that she never loved Tom (um, her husband) at all. This is damning evidence that counteracts Gatsby’s claims of loving Daisy; in my experience, love from desperation is not love at all. It’s more of an attempt to fill an insatiable spiritual hole with another person who will suffocate inside of it (and imo, when you think of a person as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, you lose all Romantic Hero credibility. Sry Jay).
It’s this preoccupation with validation and proof that spoils Nick Carraway’s thesis. For example: the desire to accumulate wealth, I think, only partly grows from the desire for comfort and largely grows from the desire to put your comfort on display. In King Lear, when he loses his crown, the Fool says to him: "now thou art an O / without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I / am a Fool, thou art nothing." Without his wealth and power, he is more of an animal than a human. He becomes obsessed, instead, with his pain and suffering. He is driven to insanity and faceless howls in the void.
I’d like to amend Nick’s thesis. If you strip away the all-consuming, conscious-altering, feels-like-you're-drowning layers of obsession, you’re left with things far less sinister: investment, motivation, affection, admiration, respect, love.
This is why escapism is such a tricky thing. It can so easily devolve into something harmful, unhealthy or dangerous: when you put your safety and salvation in the hands of another person, because your relationship with them is only thing that distracts you from your insecurity; when you start meticulously counting calories and planning meals because you embrace food intake as one of the only things you can control; when you become so invested in your work or grades that you lose all sense of your worth outside of them.
We all need forms of escape. That much seems clear. We need to be able to lose ourselves for a little while—but reality is best suspended when it’s kept inside a frame. That’s why the realms of fantasy work so well for our entertainment. We can cry over Fred Weasley’s death, or Cordelia’s, or Gatsby’s, but the illusion is controlled. There are pages, or a stage.
And to go even further, let me submit to you that these realms are both healthy and beneficial. At its core, reading is the act of imagining what it’s like to be someone else. And in the ability to leave the prison of your body for a short time and enter a character’s world comes the privilege of seeing parts of you in other people from a fresh perspective, of seeing others as they see themselves, and of using these views to reevaluate your priorities. It allows you to conceptualize possibilities for yourself and others that you previously hadn’t even considered. This is why I always brush off Gatsby critics who complain that none of the characters have redeeming qualities. In their deprecative behavior and unforgivable private thoughts, there are hints of personal truth for every reader. The characters become cautionary tales, mirrors, illusions and self-help books, all in one.
When I read Fitzgerald’s book, I felt uncomfortable. I related to these characters that I hated (although, admittedly, I didn’t hate Gatsby at first and thought he was completely flawless): Tom’s infuriating belief that he worked for what he has, and that luck played no role whatsoever; Daisy’s inability to make difficult decisions; Nick’s inclination towards being a bystander; Gatsby’s yearning for a nonexistent Happiness Lighthouse that he can come home to, and turning it into a human being. These are all slivers of truth that intruded into my own reality. By putting myself in the shoes of Nick or Fitzgerald or Doctor TJ Eckleberg or whoever the hell oversees morality in this desert wasteland of a novel, I was able to look back at my own self through those gold glasses-rimmed eyes. I learned that escape is best practiced when it allows you to improve your reality, rather than ignore it completely.