Friday, June 8, 2018


Last night on our local Public Television station, there was a promotion in which viewers were asked to vote on the book that most powerfully influenced them.  

Books influence people, arguably in a way that movies and television don’t, other than influencing people to go into movies and television.  The Bible, for example, influences people in lotsof ways, not all of which, perhaps, its original Author had in mind.  (I just threw that in because I thought of it, and where else would I get a chance to use it?  Anyway…) 

Although, as previously mentioned, I am not a big novel reader – or a smallnovel reader, for that matter – my vote for the book that most powerfully influenced me, hands down – whatever that means – would be Joseph Heller’s magnificent Catch-22.

I read Catch-22 while living in London in 1967.  I had seen it on a bookstand at the Baker Street Underground kiosk, and I queued up to pay for it, standing in a long and infuriating (if you’re not English) slow-moving queue.  I saw the train coming and I got on, holding the book I had neglected to pay for in my hand.  

Would that be considered stealing? 

I believe it would.

So there you have it. 

I stole the book that most powerfully influenced me.

I recall traveling in that subway, shrieking hysterically at Catch-22’s first pages, in which a literally mummified wartime hospital patient had two tubes inserted into his body connected to two bottles, one tube delivering liquid supplements, the other extracting the patient’s liquid waste, and when one of them was empty and the other one was full, they switched the bottles and continued the treatment.

Though undeniably funny, my appreciation of Catch-22 was exponentially enhanced by the fact that the book’s theme involved an issue near and dear to my heart:   The world we live in, therein exemplified by the American military, is functionally insane.  And if you realize that, you are too sane to escape its life-threatening authority.  

That was the eponymous Catch-22, aptly described as,

“That’s some catch, that ‘Catch-22.’”  

Absurdities abound in Catch-22, one of my favorites being a character named “Major” who, despite has lack of qualifications, someone thought it would be funny to promote to “Major”, so he would thereafter have to be addressed, “Major Major.”

Feeling understandably insecure in his unearned position, Major Major instructed his assistant never to let anyone wanting to see him into his office unless he was gone.  If he was there, he ordered him to tell the visitor to wait.  Until when?  Until he was gone.  Then the assistant had permission to let them come in.


I recall the last chunk of Catch-22 losing satirical steam. But for its earlier hundreds of pages, the book’s skewering outrageousness had me consistently doubled over in laughter, a feat of hilarity inducement no book, film, TV show or standup comedian ever subsequently surpassed.  

Heller’s novel demonstrated you could be explosively funny and scathingly truthful at the same time, the secondelement, in fact, fueling the intensity of the first. Though there are flashes of comic genius in numerous short stories by Bruce Jay Friedman, no book consistently made me laugh harder than Catch-22.  


I am struggling with starting an assigned sitcom script, early in my Hollywood television-writing career.  Not exactly “Writer’s Block”, but close.  Which was a problem because if you don’t deliver the script, they don’t pay you. And then you have to go back to Toronto and figure out who you are, amidst highly adverse meteorological conditions.

There I am, stewing in my self-flagellating juices, thinking – and, more importantly, believing – “I’m finished.”

I am in desperate need of inspiration.  Something to make me feel funny so I can write funny.  I did not know if it worked that way, but nothing, including wailing, “I’m a fraud as a writer” in an empty apartment, was helping.

Then I remember Catch-22.

Which I had brought along during the move.

I scoured my bookshelves, searching for the book I was sure would invigorate my blackening spirits.

And I found it.

I sat down, opened the book at the beginning, and I began to read.

And you know what happened?

It depressed the heck out of me.

A guy wrapped entirely in bandages, his discarded fluids used as nutritional supplements?

Suddenly, that was the saddest thing I had ever heard.

When I had scared passengers, cackling about it on the subway.

It appeared to me at that moment – though I was hardly in a condition to make balanced and reasonable observations – that, as readers could be powerfully influenced by the tone and temperament of a book, the converse possibility also appeared to be case – that a book could be powerfully influenced by the tone and temperament of the reader.

Reminding me of the song in Hans Christian Andersenabout reading, that goes,

You laugh – ‘Ha ha!” – but you blush a bit
For you realize while you’re reading it
That’s it’s also reading you.”

I used to think that was just silly.

But after I transformed Catch-22 from a comedy to a tragedy,

Maybe it isn’t.


Pidge said...

In teaching, they call it “ The Role of the Reader”. Currently, against my better instincts, I’m in what is called a ‘book group’, and I see this phenomenon at each meeting, with each novel. At first, it’s curious, then a little tiresome. I already know exactly what the retired accountant, the nurse, the former bureaucrat, the child of holocaust survivors, etc. are going to say about any book we take up.
As for me, after all these years of teaching lit, I have to restrain myself from being too critical because of the mediocrity of their selections when compared to the great writers I’ve read in the past.
To paraphrase Woody, I guess I’m in it for the snacks!

Jonathan Langsner said...

Thank you for writing about Catch 22, my favorite novel of all time. I read it over 50 years ago as a young teenager. With apologies to Heller, it was love at first sight. The first time I read it I fell madly in love with it. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair that continues to this day. I.subsequently read many other writers of the modern pantheon, probably even greater writers, but no voice has ever resonated with me the way that Heller’s did in that novel.Even after reading and rereading the same passage 20 times, the humour and the insights strike me as being as hysterically funny and as deadly as they were the first time I read them, viz. the description of Major Major Major’s father.
As for a dichotomy between the comic and tragic Catch 22s, I always thought that Heller’s genius was to be able to elicit laughter and loathing, and to evoke delight and death within microseconds of each other. Long life to Catch 22!