February 15, 2006

New Students to Read Gatsby This Summer

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She may not be Oprah, but Michele Moody-Adams oversees quite a large book club. The New Student Reading Project, which Moody-Adams designed, has assigned new Cornell students one book each summer since 2001.

The program’s goal is to create an intellectual focal point for more than 3,000 students that enter Cornell each fall. This year, the book of choice is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The book, according to Moody-Adams, was chosen largely because of its quality, depth and position at top of the American canon.

“It is a classic of American literature,” she said yesterday, “[it] says many important things about American ideals and also opens them out to scrutiny.”

The novel, published in 1925, tells the story of the extravagant Jay Gatsby through the eyes of its quiet narrator, Nick Carroway. Gatsby, a man born with nothing, sets out to erase his meager past by acquiring as much money as possible. Gatsby lives in the roaring 20s, which makes both goals particularly easy to achieve. Gatsby ultimately learns that money, as the old adage goes, can’t buy happiness or even love. According to Moody-Adams, the book’s examination of money’s true value is worthwhile for students to consider.

“When students are contemplating what to do in their lives, the question of what has value is particularly important,” she explained. “The book’s theme of conspicuous consumption will help students examine the extent to which unregulated desire is something we ought to celebrate.”

Another theme of the novel that Moody-Adams sees as relevant is self-invention. Many students who come to college, like Gatsby, aim to create a path different from the one they were born into. In the novel, Fitzgerald examines the possibilities and consequences of such a goal.

“It discusses the myth of self-invention, it examines the extent to which people can redefine themselves, cut themselves off the path