Project Gutenberg is a non-profit organization that digitizes books that are in the public domain. They provide their 42,000 books for free in a variety of formats including pdf, epub and Kindle. It's like a virtual library that you can browse. Love it!
Google Books is heaven to researchers. My partner, Lisa, introduced me to this incredible site/tool and I visit it several times a week. Beautifully designed and very easy to use.
Locus Online is the web version of the famous scifi magazine of the same name. I know of no other site that covers scifi and fantasy so thoroughly. I love the reviews and the just published sections.
Book Riot a sight I visit daily. The articles and reviews are current and often challenging. You won't find a lot of main stream puffery here. I Highly recommend this book site.
Librivox is the audio version of Project Gutenberg. Thousands of audio books are listed here. I've contributed to several projects myself.
Lisa Morton, is a six-time Stoker award winning horror author. She's edgy, contemporary and unafraid to mix genres and deliver some good solid scares. I love her work.
NPR books covers all kinds of books in all kinds of genres. I like their podcasts and their website is very well designed.
Dark Delicacies is the only bookstore I know of that deals exclusively in horror. Located in Burbank, CA., they have an amazing amount of signings and horror-related books, perfumes (yes!), toys and clothing.
Two Dollar Radio is a co-op publisher of some of the most interesting new fiction you'll find anywhere. I've discovered many remarkable authors here. Their books are beautiful,too.
Kirkus Reviews very interesting. Found a lot of good books browsing this site. This is a well-designed website with excellent writing.
Lynn Munroe issues regular catalogs of vintage paperbacks + a good dose of history and author/artist profiles. His contributions to the history of the vintage paperback are huge. AND his prices are reasonable. Lynn is an unsung hero in my book. Highly recommend his website
"In Catch-22, Joseph Heller invented a motif for the modern world. The book shaped everything that came after it, establishing Heller's reputation as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century"
-back of paperback edition of Hellers short stories
"It became enormously poplular, particularly among younger readers during the Vietnam War era, and it's title became a catch phrase"
-Oxford Companion to American Literature
Somewhere between these two quotes lies the real Joseph Heller and the real Catch-22. I've spent the better part of the last month reading this wonderful novel and pondering all of the puffery surrounding it (along with it's author), and I have some ideas and observations that I'd like to share.
I've been a focused and obsessed reader going on 40 years now. Ever since I walked into Humphrey's Family Paperbacks in Glendale, AZ., and picked out a book to read (Reality Forbidden by Philip E. High), I've been consumed with books and reading. Now, I read other books at school and enjoyed them, but this was the first book I chose myself because it interested me (rather, the cover interested me). This simple book started a life-style than has me surrounded by books for most of my day working at the Iliad Bookshop. Then I go home to read for several hours usually before I go to sleep.
Now, I'm not a finicky reader. My reading moto has been honed over the years to a sharp, clean edge: "I'll read any book on any subject as long as it's interesting". And that's true. I'll read the worst kind of sleaze novel from the 50's and turn right around and start on an aesthetic analysis of the Quay Bros. films.
I don't believe in the accepted notions of highbrow, middlebrow and low brow culture. That's all crap created by obsessive-compulsives and passed on by people who should know better. W.H. Auden taught me in his great book, The Dyer's Hand, that everything you read becomes part of your imagination, so take in all kinds of books (paraphrased a bit here). And he's right.
So, what the hell does all of this have to do with Heller's Catch-22? Well, I'll tell you: even though I read Catch-22 back in my first year of college, I never really READ it, you know what I mean? Being forced to read an "important" novel, a "significant" work of art" by "on of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century" just kills the book for me. I read it, sure, but only to cull information to write up a pretty much bullshit essay on... something. I think I probably got more out of the Cliff Notes to Catch-22 than I did anything from the book. Although, I did remember being impressed with the "Dante" sequence near the end of Catch-22 where Yossarian is walking through the sleazy streets of wartime Rome and it seems like hell.
After college, I never thought about Catch-22 again and certainly avoided the damn movie version of it (rather stick a rail road tie in my.. well, you get the idea). And, of course, there's the bookstore puffery that comes with the "classics". Listening to people tell me that Catch-22 is a great work of art or that Joseph Heller is under-appreciated..blah blah blah. Sure, I respected the book because of it's place in the literary canon, but to me it was just a book I was forced to read and got nothing out of.
Until this last month....
I think it was the cover that forced me to read Catch-22 as an adult (see above). Here I am, 56 years old and I'm still doing the same thing I did at 16: buying a book because of it's cover. Well, that's not entirely true as I have a lifetime of reading books and reading about books behind me now. But, I mean, who could resist this cover? Here's the full description of the cover:
"Cover: B-25 Mitchell All-Plastic Twin-Engine Bomber complete with Pilots and
Gunners, Landing Gear, Three-Bladed Props, 75mm Cannon, 14 Machine Guns, 6
Rockets. Easy to assemble. (private collection)"
Could find nothing on the designer or the person whose private collection these toys belonged to (if anyone knows please post), but, damn, it's such a beautiful, evocative image! Especially the one or two toy parts that are pulled off of the stems they are attached to. Later, I was to realize the significance of these subtle touches.
"Catch-22 is concerned with physical survival against exterior forces
or institutions that want to destroy life or moral self"
-Paris Review 60, Heller Interview
But now it's time to sit down and read this book. This time because I want to and because I'm interested in it. Thinking: "about time I got back to this book...is it really the classic everyone says it is?"
from "art of manliness" blog
Is Catch-22 a classic?
The term "classic" is a bogus word nowadays. The advertising industry stole it and packaged it up so that anyone could use it as a lazy superlative: "Ah, yes, an instant classic", or, "I'm sorry but we only read the classics in this book club", and further, "It's an underground, pulp classic, dude". What does any of this mean? Basically, nothing. "Classic" is a butter word now. One that you spread all over something to add flavor when there probably isn't any present in the first place.
Good old Oxford dictionary defines "classic" very succinctly: "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind". That pretty much puts the lie to the 1001 uses of "classic" you read and hear every day. What we have instead is a definition that simply states a "classic" of anything has to be "of the highest quality", "over a period of time" and must be "outstanding of its kind". Some wiggle room there with the "judged" and "of its kind", but I think we can apply this definition to Catch-22 now.
To be considered a classic, Catch-22 has to be of the highest quality. Now, re-reading the book, I can safely say it IS of the highest quality. Well, 75% of it is because the book feels sloppy and over-written. I'm not going to go into plot summaries, look it up, but the whole middle section where each chapter is a different character: a colonel, a commanding officer, a major, a captain....much of this became a blur and felt like either too-personal a recollection (Heller served in WWII and wrote much of the novel based on his feelings and experiences during the war) or an author's indulgence. Even Milo Minderbinder's long section feels almost like another short novel buried inside of the much lager Catch-22 novel.
And Heller's prose, when he's not dead on, is loquacious and fat. Listen to this section from page 246 (the Vintage-Classics edition):
"Certainly he would be much better off under somebody suave like General Peckem than he was under somebody boorish and insensitive like General Dreedle, because General Peckhem had the discernment, the intelligence and the Ivy League background to appreciate and enjoy him at his full value, although General Peckhem had never given the slightest indication that he appreciated or enjoyed him at all. Colonel Cathcartfelt perceptive enough to realize that visible signals of recognition were never necessary between sophisticated, self-assured people like himself and General
Peckham who could warm to each other from......"
Contrast this with the "Eternal City" chapter late in the book:
"The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a yard full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!"
But let me cut to the chase here; Catch-22 isn't of the highest quality consistently, but it's really the overall effect of the book and it's characters that make the difference. And what characters! I think the real achievement of Catch-22 lies in the characters Heller created. Yossarian, Milo, the Chaplin and Nately's whore make indelible impressions on readers and there's an entire opera's worth in the book. Of course, the use of time shifting in the book is masterful, too, although at first it seems sloppy. By shifting back and forth between the very significant event with Yossarian and his dying fellow soldier on the plane, Heller creates an effect that is very film-like and results in a brilliant climax to the story (no spoilers here, folks.
And although readers and critics were slow to pick up on what Heller was doing (writing an anti-war story that combined comedy and tragedy with black, black irony), eventually readers and legions of college teachers (like mine) read and re-read the novel and discovered how "outstanding of it's kind" Catch-22 really is.
"I really don't know what I'm doing until people read what I've
written and give me their reactions"
The final element of the "classic" is time: "judged over a period of time", the Oxford definition states. It's been 50 years now since Catch-22 was published and it's become part of the American canon of novels. Listed in top tens on every list you can think of. A definitive anti-war novel (it's more than that though) taught by countless teachers in college and high-school. That should make it a classic, right?
In order for Catch-22 to become a true classic like Vanity Fair or Aristotle's Poetics, it need more than a generation to laugh at it's absurd comedy and cringe at it's dark irony. I have a feeling it will last because so much of the story is based on Heller's own experiences in WWII and because he is such a passionate, funny storyteller, but we don't know for sure if Catch-22 will last for 100 years or 1000 years. It was written at a time (early 60's) when this kind of story was welcomed, especially by younger readers. As the excellent introduction to the Vintage Classic's edition (written by Howard Jacobson) puts it:
"What I think most of us who love Catch-22 love most is precisely what, from the Flaubertian position, is wrong with it. Its loose- ness, its unruliness, its extravagance, its verbal excess, its
emotional waywardness, its impatience with the niceties, whether of expression or of feeling, its repetitiveness, its devil-may-care clumsiness, its hysteria, its tomfoolery, its brutality,
its sexual rough-and-tumble, its unembarrassed preachiness, its vacillations, its formlessness, or rather - because Heller knows full well what laws he's breaking - it's apparent formlessness.
If those are faults, we say, then hang the virtues"
-Catch-22, Introduction to Vintage Classics, 2004
I discovered Catch-22 late in life. I mean, I really read the book and understood it as an adult. As a young, college kid I had no idea what was going on, nor did I care. Now, from a distance, it's themes and characters make sense to me. I was moved by Catch-22, don't get me wrong, but the book needs time to affect another generation before it can truly be called a classic. And considering the enormous changes in human perspective (not to mention war) that are coming because of advanced technology, I'm not sure the book will survive as "a motif for the modern world".
But, we shall see....
Heller apparently never quite got to the level he achieved in Catch-22 with any of his later works. Or so we are told. He wrote slowly using index cards, daydreaming and conversations with friends. Seven novels, a couple plays and screenplays, two autobiographies and some short stories are the extent of his writings. He suffered a paralyzing illness at middle age from which he recovered to make a living primarily through teaching writing at the university level. He died in 1999 just after completing his last novel Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.