Catch As Catch Can

Someone looking back at past blogs noticed the one discussing the “commonplace book”, which is a book that is not so commonplace around the Book Fair. A commonplace book, as you will certainly recall, is a book in which someone has jumbled together a look of literary excerpts that seemed to that someone to go together. This sort of thing, the overeducated reader reminded me, is also sometimes called a chrestomathy, or catch-all.

This put me in mind of a book we had come in which made extensive use of catchwords. Now, in our advertising-mad world, catchword is sometimes used to signify a shorter form of a catch-phrase. “Where’s the beef?”, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”, “Who’s Yehudi?”, and “Well, excuuuuse me” are catchphrases as well known to earlier audiences as, say, “tapioca meatloaf” or “banana box” are to today’s well-educated person. A catchword, then, is a one-word catch phrase, like Fahrvergnugen, Anytober, or floasted.

But in the bibliographic world, a catchword is a word you will sometimes find floating away from the text, down in the corner of a page, all by its loneself. The pages next to it don’t have one, but you will find another one, oh, eight or sixteen pages along. So it’s not a stray from the herd: why is it there?

Well, it’s kind of a survival from an earlier age. Books are usually printed in gatherings, or signatures: bundles of eight, sixteen, or some even number of pages. These bundles need to be bound in the correct order to make an intelligible book, at least to the extent that the author wrote an intelligible book. Especially in the days before page numbers were invented, some device was needed to help with this. So the last page of the gathering would have written or printed down in the corner the first word on the first page of the next gathering. The person assembling the book would match the catchword at the bottom to the first word in the next gathering to make sure the gatherings were sewn together in the proper order.

(There are purists who insist that the “signature” is really an inscription or printed mark somewhere on the gathering to identify it as the first signature of Book Thusandsuch. I’ve always heard gatherings called signatures and I refuse to turn my back on the phraseology now.)

We had another collection of New World Writing come in: people seem to have bought this every year as a matter of faith. Mentor Books brought out a number of highly useful and educational books in the early days of paperbacks. These were so educational that now they are worth almost nothing on the collectible paperback market. (Isn’t that always the way?) Every year, they brought out a volume of New World Writing, a collection of bits and pieces of new work or work in progress by promising authors. Almost none of these are worth money, too.

Except for volume 7, from 1955. This volume includes a short article on jazz by Jack Kerouac, under a pseudonym, and an excerpt from a new book Joseph Heller was writing. He called it Catch-18. It makes New World Writing #7 a testament to a moment in publishing history. Joseph Heller finished the book and sold it to a publisher, but just as it was about to hit the stands, the publisher saw another company had published a book with the number 18 in the title, and asked him to change his. So to keep peace in the world and maybe see if his book would find any buyers, he renumbered it, and in 1961 the finished product, called Catch-22, appeared on store shelves.

Joseph Heller had known all along what this column has striven to show you. There’s always a catch.

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