Gatsby’s Library

The Great Gatsby

I’ve been re-reading Gatsby. And oddly enough, although I am quite convinced that this is the perfect novel, and despite the fact that I’m on my third or fourth reading, and that I am usually inclined to remember when a book talks about rooms full of books, I remembered almost nothing about this odd little scene in Gatsby’s library.

I suppose everyone who prides themselves on their personal library has secretly imagined their books as a kind of ultra-flattering self-portrait. Who hasn’t gazed at their own bookshelves and imagined, smugly, what impressive conclusions a stranger doing the same might draw about their their owner?  Fitzgerald has a rather biting, unkind comment about this sort of self-conceit in this scene, which occurs before the narrator has ever spoken to Gatbsy. Up until this moment, he knows his neighbor only from a late evening sighting on the lawn, and a collection of wild rumors about his exploits during the Great War.

The bar, where we glanced first, was crowded but Gatsby was not there. She couldn’t find him from the top of the steps, and he wasn’t on the veranda. On a chance we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.

A stout, middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.

“About what?”

He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.

“About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”

“The books?”

He nodded.

“Absolutely real–have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our skepticism for granted he rushed to the bookcasses and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

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