“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22”
Books can accumulate a lot of personal baggage. Keep them in your life for long enough, and they’re likely to become encrusted with memories. This dust jacket is from my personal copy of Catch-22 and goes back a long way, as you can tell from the $2.45 price drastically marked down to $2.19. This was the second and more durable copy I owned after I read ragged the more familiar blue paperback with the dancing airman on the cover. The library’s copy in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature is the first edition, published in 1961. The branch libraries have a recent Everyman's Library edition with a picture of Joseph Heller on the cover. But it is the Modern Library edition and its cover art that resonate with me.
I didn’t encounter the novel until the early 1970s, during my first years of college and the last nightmarish years of the Vietnam War; but I read it again and again, not only for its wit and style, but for the message, articulated for me clearly and for the first time, that governments and other institutions were not always to be trusted, that they might even be out to cause harm. Heller’s assertion that “The only freedom we really have is the freedom to say no” vibrated through the halls of Hunter College--as well as most other college campuses--and black humor was the very atmosphere we breathed.
That book did follow me around. After college, when I moved to my first apartment on the Upper West Side, Manhattan was a different world. The rent on my studio then was about the same amount as I now spend on an average trip to Duane Reade. Everyone I knew was vaguely bohemian and nobody concerned themselves too much with money or working; you could go far as you needed with a part-time job or an unemployment check. Along with books, movies saturated our lives, and lots of energy was taken up with planning which revival to go to next--whether at the Regency, the New Yorker, the Thalia, or the Metro. If money had any importance at all, it was not for acquiring real estate, digital equipment, or fancy wardrobes, but for movie tickets and books.
During this period (which probably has a more romantic glow in memory than in actuality), I replaced my battered Catch-22 with the Modern Library edition, which I bought from Coliseum, that quintessential but long since vanished bookstore on 57th Street and Broadway. (To this day I can’t pass that corner without a sudden, atavistic urge to buy books.) Although my tiny apartment contained a few book shelves built into an alcove, they were soon overflowing. I have a snapshot taken at Christmas which includes those shelves, and the bright red jacket of Catch-22 is clearly visible dead center, compulsively arranged under H for Heller.
Over the years, there were three other apartment moves, during which my book collection expanded and then contracted, was built up and then reluctantly whittled away again. There’s nothing like having to put stuff in boxes and to pay someone to transport it to make you question how much you really need to own it. During these moves, I managed to shed many of the other black humorists I’d been reading: Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Jay Friedman, J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, and John Barth. Although at one time they had all spoken to me in clear, meaningful voices, I had come to require richer, more complex fictional experiences. Catch-22, however, continued to follow me from place to place, in anticipation of at least one more reading which never seemed to come about.
When I started to work at the New York Public Library, I was the guy who returned books to the main reading room shelves and slipped the wooden catalog trays back into their appropriate slots. Humble as my position was, I couldn’t believe my luck in finding a job in a place that throbbed with the rhythm of so many books; the institution intoxicated me, as in many ways it still does. Words were a sort of fever, and my lust for reading only deepened. During my lunch break one sun-drenched afternoon, I sat in a metal chair on the front steps, between the library lions, with Catch-22 in my hands. I was clearly intending to read it again, but something was going wrong. Maybe the sun was sapping my energy, making me feel like a lizard on a rock. Maybe I was too intrigued by the tide of midday pedestrians. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. The few pages I was able to focus on seemed unfunny and repetitious, and I soon gave it up as a bad bet, not quite realizing that I would never go back.
I’ve been working at the library for upwards of thirty years. Taken day by day it sounds like a long time, but looked at from this end of things it simply feels like one long afternoon. Manhattan provincial that I am, I now live downtown on the east side, with more space for books than I ever had before--although I’m still aware of trying to satisfy an infinite desire in a finite space. Still, each remaining book has an extra-literary impression or a bit of history attached to it. Will Kindle owners ever feel the same way about their latest downloads? One of the books I’ve held onto is Catch-22. Every once in a while I pick it up, flip through a few pages, absorb a bit here or there, and wonder what it would be like to read the whole thing again. I don’t think I ever will. With the future racing towards you like a brick wall, your precious reading time has to be used more selectively. Besides, I think having another go at Catch-22 would be too much like encountering a younger version of myself. Although I’m glad he’s still there, I’m not ready to be reacquainted.