Last week because of a nasty cold I did not go to a social book club I usually try to attend. The book that they chose was Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald. A few days before the scheduled meeting I finished it, and it was my fourth reading of it since college. This book club is based online, and when I planned to attend I posted that it was my favorite book. I saw one member who commented on that to me in person, and one member emailed me about possible discussion questions for the book. So I guess claiming a book as a favorite is a big deal, and if I went I may have had to defend that statement.
Before I felt awful I planned to write out my thoughts on this book, so I could intelligently say why I felt it was so good. It’s a complex book, so I’m not sure the way to approach this. I think one way to tackle it will be to first explain the different times in my life that I have read the book. Then I’ll go into the actual book.
It was definitely fall on my first reading, but I’m not sure if the year was 1998 or 1999. At The University of Toledo, all English majors had to take one class that concentrated on one author. Students could take Austin, James, Virginia Wolfe, and I’m sure others. I chose the class on Fitzgerald, not for any particular reason, but I’m glad I did. The BA in English had other requirements like a class on Shakespeare, a class of British Literature before 1800 and another one for after 1800, and an American literature class. You had options for each requirement which was nice, and I had several excellent classes. But the author class seemed unique. The professor was great, and most of the class was handled in the discussion format. We read a lot of stories from Fitzgerald’s complete story collection, and four of his novels. The only novel that we skipped was The Beautiful and the Damned which I read later in life. When I read Tender is the Night I was blown away by the demise of the main character, Dick Diver. I felt it was the best thing I read for the language, the story, the drama, and the whole package.
I’m not completely sure when I read it for the second time, but with poetic license I’m going to say it was in 2003 when I moved to Kent State for my grad degree. But it could have been a few years before that when I worked at a Barnes & Noble. On a side note I feel fortunate that I worked in a bookstore and then made my career as a librarian possible. Because of being a librarian I was very much able to keep literature part of my life. Between 2000 and 2003 in the bookstore I did read quite a bit, and tried to build on what I learned from my BA in literature. In Kent though, I quickly met some literary minded aspiring librarians. I read authors like Henry Miller and Herbert Selby Jr. for the first time. I think when I read Tropic of Cancer I saw parallels with Tender is the Night with the expatriate themes. Tropic of Cancer showed poverty, profanity, philosophy, and humor. That book had an impact on me, and I believe out of curiosity I re-read Tender is the Night to compare the two, and I still thought it was excellent in the way Dick Diver fails as a person in the end. I liked it for the same reason I did the first time I read it.
My third reading was in 2005 or 2006. I was a relatively new librarian and it was for a book club at work. A few months prior a book by Louise Erdrich was discussed. That Erdrich book I read years before and decided not to re-read it. So I learned a valuable lesson that for book clubs the facilitator needs to read or re-read the book and prepare some for it. So I re-read with a similar conclusion that it was a great book. At that library, the book club in general was really nice, successful, and several people from the friends of the library participated. One regular member did not like it and stated some very good reasons why she did not. So I realized that my favorite book from college is not for everyone.
Since my current reading of this book was for a book club I very much wanted to explain with solid reasons why this book is worthy. An odd thing happened though, a few chapters in it, I didn’t really connect to it much at all. I wondered why I made such a deal about this book being my favorite. The book is divided into three parts, and it’s roughly 300 pages long. I remembered quite a bit from my previous readings, but still the first part of the book is simply build up. Also there is racism, sexual tension, and sexism that a lot of people may find distasteful. That aside, when it gets good I realized on this reading and why it had an impact on me, is the start of the second part. It gets away from eighteen year old movie star beauty Rosemary, and gets into the history of Nicole and Dick Diver. This part is brilliant, and anyone interested in turn of the century psychology should check it out. If you do not have time to read Magic Mountain by Mann I recommend reading this book. On this reading when I got to the second part I was not self conscious about my proclaiming this is my favorite book, because I remembered why. The third part is amazing too, because it shows the slow demise of the main character. In The Beautiful and the Damned Fitzgerald really displays the ruin of alcoholism in a character in that book. It was a theme Fitzgerald returned to, and I think Tender is the Night he hit the mark again on that.
So after the fourth reading I think this is a very good book, but I’m not so sure if it is still my favorite. In college I chose an English major because I wanted to read more. Before those courses I really didn’t read much of anything. My time after college first at the bookstore, than in grad school, and for over five years in NYC I kept up reading. I have read so much other good books since I read Tender is the Night, but that might have been one of the first books to really grab me. Picking a favorite book is a big statement and tough. If I absolutely had to choose a favorite book it would be one of these books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tender is the Night, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Jude the Obscure, Crime and Punishment, Magic Mountain, Of Human Bondage, The Great Gatsby, Tropic of Cancer, Native Son, or A Moveable Feast.
That is enough tooting of my own horn, so I’m going to stop now. Stay tuned, I’m going to try to blog three times a week. The next one may be on a comparison of the artistic merits of Shakira and Lady Gaga.