When I decided that I was going to university to study Creative Writing and become A Writer (in the terribly glamorous film noir sense), I suddenly realised that I had survived most of my educational years without reading many of those deemed as “classics”. By that, I mean Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird and other such modern greats. I was terrified that I might sound like a complete pleb if I turned up knowing nothing about these books (I had images of toffs with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets, smoking pipes and discussing literature in deep-and-meaningful tones). So, that summer, I set out to read them all.
Catcher in the Rye, at the risk of sounding like a heathen, was boring. To Kill a Mockingbird made me cry (I still cry at the film, but that could be because of the massive crush I have on Atticus). But Catch-22… well…
Poppaloo, an infrequent but passionate reader, extolled the virtues of Catch-22 and it was his well-thumbed copy that I took to read (Poppaloo also rates The Life of Garp and Lord of the Flies in his all-time top books, so he has good taste). Forget the first few pages – they will never make sense (about as much sense as A Clockwork Orange is to sane people) – but keep going. I was hooked. It was one of the first books that made me laugh out loud.
This book coined the phrase “catch-22” to describe a no-win, impossible situation. It encapsulated that war-madness from World War II that is so hard to describe with humour, and yet Heller seemed to succeed. Almost a story about nothing, our protagonist Yossarian is increasingly loveable and cowardly and brave in equal measure as you read on. There is a little Yossarian in all of us, I feel.
And now it’s 50 years old. Happy birthday Yossarian. Congratulations Josef Heller, for creating a modern classic.
And the best bit? Waterstones have a 50th anniversary edition. It’s £18.99, but it is hardback, with blue-rimmed pages and a beautiful cover (see above). I want it, just to have it sat on the bookshelf next to Poppaloo’s battered, silver copy. Just to show how good this book actually is.
If you haven’t read it – go now. Forget the other “modern classics” (especially Catcher in the Rye), you’ll just need this one.
Oh… and I was strangely disappointed to arrive at university and find no toffs, tweed jackets or pipe-smokers…