Roger Ebert posted just last week an extraordinary essay about, among other things, the act and the art of reading aloud. It is an essay about many things, as I said, but language is its main concern; from the rumbling stumblings of James Fenimore Cooper (as appreciated by Mark Twain) to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Cormac McCarthy. It is not a great essay, for that would suggest a clarity and singularity of purpose that it lacks; a cogent thesis is absent, so the essay instead contents itself with rolling from the one to the next and so on; but it is an extraordinary one nonetheless, in part, I think, because it deals with the Question of Literature. The fact that Ebert himself is a thoughtful man with no mean talent as a writer, to be sure, a contributing factor. But, gentle reader, I digress.
Ebert supposes that the greatest lines in literature come at the end of The Great Gatsby (as quoted below). I do not know that I would agree with that; I would suppose that perhaps fellows who are named Shakespeare and Melville and Thurber and Twain and Greene might be considered to have a dog in that fight; but then again, to paraphrase a great American philosopher, he’s Roger Ebert and I’m not.
Still, they are words of an uncommon quality, and I do think, perhaps, that to read them aloud—preferably with an audience, and even more preferably with an audience that can appreciate the words; while dogs, cats and other domesticated animals can provide wonderful companionship, and may even appreciate our efforts on their behalf, they tend not to be the most patient of listeners when attending a reading—does prove that that oldest of rituals, the telling of tales—not with letters and paper but with lung and voice—is still a worthy one.
The text is below. Try it.
Most of the big shore places were closed now there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding about the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms our further … And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.