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Book is both genius, difficult

August 17, 2018

As I’ve continued to be caught up in the excitement of PBS’s Great American Read, I’ve been concentrating on reading some of the books on the list that I’d never read before.

Since I pride myself on owning and having read many of the classics, it is with chagrin that I admit that until recently I neither owned nor had I read “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller. However, thanks to its inclusion on the list of one hundred books, I now have done both.

After reading the novel, though, I freely admit that it’s an odd book, and I found it difficult to sustain the momentum of reading it.

While I love the convoluted satirical wit that is the essence of the story, I think it simply goes on for too long. I often sat the book down after reading only one chapter, and when I’d pick it back up, I might only manage another chapter or two. This is not the best way to read a book that runs about 450 pages in length.

What I do admire about this novel, though, is that its title has become a well-known and understood expression in our culture. Heller created a succinct phrase for everyone who has to tolerate and wade through contradictory rules that leave them stuck in a helpless situation. We all experience that in dealings with various aspects of the government or our jobs.

For example, as a teacher I once complained to an administrator about some problems I was having with students. He basically told me that I had created the problem because I didn’t give out detentions, so a few weeks later I gave out some detentions. Then the same administrator asked me why I was giving out detentions and demanded to know why I couldn’t manage my classroom. Ah, the lovely Catch-22.

In the novel, it is the military and its odd assortment of contradictory rules that Heller focuses on through his helpless hero, Cpt. Yossarian. Yossarian badly wants out of the war. He is a bombardier who is tired of the people he keeps dropping bombs on trying to kill him with the flak they shoot at his airplane, and each mission he flies gets him closer to the magic number of missions needed to be given discharge papers.

The problem is: they keep upping the number of required missions every time Yossarian gets within range. When he has 48, the requirement is 50, so the colonel changes it to 55 and later to 60, etc. Thus, Yossarain can never meet the required number of bombing missions to earn his discharge.

He can, however, be grounded if he’s crazy, but he has to ask to be grounded. Once he asks to be grounded, he’s fulfilled 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.” So, asking to be grounded would show Yossarian was not crazy, so he couldn’t be grounded and would simply have to keep flying missions.

The story is full of many more examples of paradoxical logic that are simply illogical. That’s both the genius and the difficulty of this book, and while I may not have enjoyed reading it as much as I would have liked to have, I am glad that I now have a firm understanding of the story behind the sadly necessary term “Catch-22.”

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Next month’s reading selection is “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas.

Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com

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