UNIVERSITY PARK — Talk about being engrossed in a book.
On Thursday, Penn State students, faculty members and coaches took turns reading aloud Joseph Heller’s classic novel “Catch-22” in a 24-hour reading marathon in front of Pattee Library.
Until about 1 p.m. today, they’ll tell the darkly comic exploits of Capt. John Yossarian, Milo Minderbender, Major Major and Orr, the bomber pilot without a first name, and the other characters in a B-25 bomber squadron in Italy during World War II.
The celebrated 1961 book has a Penn State connection. Heller began writing it at the university while he taught first-year composition from 1950 to 1952.
English professor Chris Reed had the honor of uttering a famous passage.
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind,” Reed said to the audience sitting under a pavilion.
“Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.”
Reed and comparative literature professor Eric Hayot thought of the read-a-thon after NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State and its football program. The university was punished after four administrators were accused of enabling convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky.
Upset that the “university had been reduced to football” by national reports, they decided to stage a public event highlighting Penn State’s academic prowess, Hayot said.
“Look, this is a place where literature gets written,” he said. “This is a place where literature is discussed.”
Hayot envisions the marathon as an annual tradition students remember as fondly as football games and other collegiate rituals. As a start, organizers served pizza for dinner, planned to bring breakfast and invited students to unroll sleeping bags and hang out overnight.
“It’s about how we create and connect these emotional college experiences — camping out — with the academic side of the university without making it another class,” Hayot said.
But, Hayot said, the idea wasn’t to denigrate sports. To show solidarity with athletics, organizers invited coaches to participate.
After Sue Paterno read the opening pages, women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose stepped up to the microphone. Later, women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington dove into Yossarian’s absurd world.
“I’m an avid reader, so getting to get outside the basketball complex and read, it’s right up my alley,” Washington said.
She said she wanted to show her program “appreciates and celebrates academics,” especially after the past turbulent months.
“When your family gets attacked, you rally together,” she said.
Liana Trigg, a sophomore, enjoyed the scene as a spectator.
“To say our school is all about sports is unfair,” she said. “Because we obviously care about academics. I think this event summarizes the feelings of Penn State students very well.”
Curiosity drew Emily Burke, a sophomore, to sign up for a slot. When her time with Heller’s cast was over, she left intrigued.
“Now I’m more inclined to read it,” she said.
That would make any literature professor smile. Hayot said organizers chose “Catch-22” not just because of Heller’s Penn State ties, but also because of the book’s timeless, biting takes on war and human nature.
“We’re trying to teach our kids to be self-critical and thoughtful, and this novel does that,” Hayot said. “It does it through laughter.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews