by Joseph Heller
In A Nutshell
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Have you ever had a time in your life when you really thought you'd lost it? When everything seemed upside down?
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, at a time when America was between two of its messiest wars. The novel looks back at World War II, but in many ways it 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, an Air Force bomber pilot in WWII. While lots of people might think of him as a hero for his brave service, Yossarian sees past all the pomp and patriotism and understands war as something else entirely: sheer madness.
The book condemns both war itself and the powers that carry out this systematic carnage. It's famous for its satirical tone, fractured narrative, and linguistic flourishes—all of which reflect the nonsensical nature of the military enterprise that has Yossarian feeling hopelessly stuck. 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 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 the story, Yossarian and his fellow pilots are 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 (okay, we admit it, we're totally that kid...we're still counting the days until we become real-world Legends of Rock).
Anyway, you're walking home from school one day and—dun dun dun—along comes the neighborhood bully. You know, the one kid who is somehow three times your size and ten times as angry. He's had a pretty bad day, so he decides to take his rage out on you: he grabs you and yells, "Gimme your money…or else!"
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. 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, "Alright, instead of me taking your money, how about you give it to me, and we won't have any problems?"
You begrudgingly accept the offer because, you know, getting beat up sucks and all. What else are you gonna do? So you lose your money to the bully. Still, he didn't exactly take it from you. You gave it to him. No one can call the kid a thief. Right?
Well, sort of. The thing is, 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. The bully 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: your money.
You're caught in a Catch-22. There's a reason that the title of Joseph Heller's novel has become a catchphrase for any double-bind in which you seem to have choices but are, in fact, doomed from the start.
Sure, Heller may be addressing out-of-control military bureaucracy in this book, but the logic he describes will be familiar to anyone who's dealt with powerful bad guys. To paraphrase Heller himself, a Catch-22 allows bullies 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.