Reading classics often means that you will be encountering cultural baggage, especially when the characters, phrases or tropes in the book have settled into the public consciousness no matter how many people have actually read them. Sometimes you’ll know a key concept before delving into the exploration: ‘four legs good, two legs bad!’ Or you may have already created a character in your mind before you meet them on the page whether that is through media adaptations or what they have come to represent, like Heathcliff or Oliver Twist. Other times, you’ll have been quoting a classic phrase without realising its source, or indeed its power: ‘Reader, I married him.’
When it came to Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, I encountered this problem in a way that I hadn’t with any of the other classics in the Unread Alphabet.
In the case of Cold Comfort Farm, the character of Amos, the solemn, fire-and-brimstone preacher has been often, if not rather inelegantly, quoted in a large number of theology papers and lectures that I’ve encountered. (Largely because he is the trope of preaching, the views about heaven/hell and the eschatology that most theologians try to avoid.) The difficulty with encountering him in his natural habitat of the novel was that he had been used to serve so many different points to me over the years that any power or humour in the religious tropes fell somewhat flat. I think part of this was that perhaps the caricature no longer holds true in our culture so the barbs don’t pierce so sharply, but perhaps also to do with the most interesting character having been over-analysed in a way he couldn’t recover from. Ultimately, I think it probably came down to the fact that I didn’t get into the book in the first place, so I was less likely to tolerate what I was already too familiar with.
Catch 22 was a completely different experience. Whilst the book has lead to the coining of the phrase to mean a lose-lose situation, the cultural appropriation of the term has become in many ways disconnected from the original genius and power of what it means in the book. As a result, there was a real sense of discovery for me in getting into Heller’s deep exposition of the maddening struggles and contradictions of not only of bureaucracy, but also of war, justice and capitalistic trade.
So maybe it just comes down to whether you enjoy the book or not, or whether the book has still retained enough of its original depth beyond the cultural references you are familiar with.
The Unread Alphabet: Gibbons and Heller
Stella Gibbons – Cold Comfort Farm
It goes against my typical sense of British decency and personal rules about not trashing things on line to say this: I couldn’t stand the book, and I’m quite surprised that I finished it. The book relies humour tropes of romance novels, which made me wonder if it was just my own lack of familiarity with genre that hindered my enjoyment, but I leant it to two friends who are better read in this area, and they didn’t get it either. The main character, Flora Poste, ends up staying with her distant relatives on the family farm, and with her modern moral guidance she is able to fix all of their problems and bring them firmly into the twentieth century. I’ve tried to dissect what it was that didn’t work for me – I was fine with the writing style and with the character tropes, even the subject matter. Ultimately I think it comes down to the tricky thing of comedy – if you don’t click with the style and subject of humour that a book like this relies on, then I fear that it becomes obtuse, wearying and a little boring.
Joseph Heller – Catch 22
It’s almost impossible to feel like I have anything new to say about such a classic book, but that’s never stopped me before, and I am also a firm believer in book reading being an experience different to each reader and their perspective. My enjoyment of this book was rather muddled. I loved the outworking of the concept of Catch 22 in various situations. At the most basic level, Catch-22 is used to explore insanity and risk in the war – insanity is the only excuse not to fly a combat mission, but only a sane person would be able to use that excuse to avoid combat mission: ‘if he flew he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.’ As the book progresses, we find more and more situations of Catch 22, right up to the revelation that Catch 22 doesn’t exist and so isn’t binding, but because it doesn’t exist it cannot be attacked and found to be non-binding. The style of the book is complicated and fragmented – for example seeing the same event from the perspective of each different character – adding to the effect of confusion, absurdity and entanglement. I didn’t become attached to any of the characters, but I think that was in some ways the point – it’s an atmosphere in which you feel unable to truly care for anyone but yourself, yet you will still feel numb and shocked at their death. If you’ve got time and energy to follow the ins and outs and contradictions, Catch 22 is very much worth it.