In A Nutshell
Have you ever had a time in your life when you really thought you'd gone 'round the bend? When everything seemed upside down? Well, so have we. Let's face it. There's a lot about this wild merry-go-round that we call life that can give us the feeling that we have taken a few too many crazy pills. So here's the real question: what do you do about that feeling?
Well, if you're Joseph Heller, you write Catch-22, one of the most influential books of all time and a powerful indictment of humanity's most insane practice: war. The book—Heller's most famous by far—was published in 1961, in a time when America was between two of its messiest wars. The novel looks back at World War II, but in many ways anticipates the anti-war movement as U.S. involvement in Vietnam began to ramp up.
Catch-22 tells the story of one Captain John Yossarian, a man whose job it is to fly bombing missions for the Air Force in WWII. For his service to his country, most Americans would look at him as a hero. From Yossarian's standpoint, though, he sees past all the pomp and patriotism and understands war as something else entirely: sheer madness.
The book condemns war, and the powers that carry out this systematic carnage, from all perspectives, and it does so with a satirical tone, a fractured narrative, and linguistic flourishes that all reflect the nonsensical nature of the military enterprise that Yossarian finds himself hopelessly stuck in. And that phrase—hopelessly stuck—pretty much sums up the whole novel. These boys, as the title suggests, are in a classic catch-22.
That's a term term we use to describe a situation in which there is no way out, and—what do you know?—it came from this very novel, in which it sums up Yossarian's (and his fellow pilots') problem: they're forced to follow insane orders to demonstrate their sanity. Of course, if they refuse these orders, they are deemed "crazy"—which, really, is the sanest position to take.
If this sounds a bit hard to follow, it's because, well, war is the ultimate destruction of logic. This book has won countless accolades for its ability to drive that point home. But don't take our word for it. Given its cultural importance, leaving this book off your reading list would just be… insane.
Why Should I Care?
Let's say you're a twelve-year old kid with thick glasses and a love of all things Guitar Hero (and, okay, we admit it, we're totally that kid, except that we're in our twenties. We're counting the days until we become real-world Legends of Rock).
Anyway, you're walking to school one morning and along comes this giant fifteen-year old bearing down on you. And he's a smart kid, but maybe he's hating life. So he decides to take his rage out on you: he grabs you and yells, "Gimme your money!"
Your stomach sinks: this guy's roughly a thousand pounds heavier than you, and you haven't been in a fight since you were in kindergarten and your younger sister took your Pikachu toy (and that was mostly hair-pulling). Still, you manage to protest, "Please don't take my money! I've been saving up for Guitar Hero World Tour." After all, you like to live dangerously.
The kid stops for a second, and then nods. He says seriously, "Okay, you said no, and I would hate to take the money from you. But you know what?" – this is where he shakes you a little for emphasis – "I'm going to give you the opportunity to give it to me." And because you value all of your bones in their unbroken condition, you promptly offer up the cash. See? He didn't take it from you. You gave it to him. No one can call the kid a thief. Except, of course, that this logic is ridiculous. On paper, it seems like maybe you have a choice in this situation. Really, though, everything has been stacked against you from the start. He says he's not going to take your money, but he'll accept it if you give it to him. But if you don't give it to him, he'll beat you up and take it anyway. This guy's giving you what looks like a choice, but whatever you do, he'll get what he wants out of it anyway: your money. You're caught in a Catch-22. There's a reason that Joseph Heller's novel, Catch-22 has become a catchphrase for any double-bind in which you seem to have choices but are, in fact, doomed from the start. He may be talking about the specific case of out-of-control military bureaucracy, but the logic he describes will be familiar to anyone who's dealt with powerful bad guys. To paraphrase Heller himself, Catch-22 is what gives bullies (either bureaucratic or freelance) the right to do what we can't stop them from doing anyway. And we owe Heller a debt of gratitude for stating so clearly what is so wrong about the logic of that creep who stole our Guitar Hero money.