Wednesday, September 02, 2009

WNW: Catch-22

Today's Word Nerd Wednesday is part Word Nerd, part book review, reason being that I just finished reading Joseph Heller's classic novel, Catch-22.

First off, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have written something with a title that goes beyond being a title and becomes part of the lexicon. I'm sure there are other books that have done this, but I can't think of one off the top of my head.

Since this book isn't exactly a new release (it was originally published in 1961), a lot of people don't realize that the term, "Catch-22" originated from any book, let alone one bearing the term as a title. A movie was made based on the book in 1970, which I think I might need to rent now.


"Catch-22" is such a common phrase that it's even in the dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster online it's, "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule."

In other words, a Catch-22 is a no-win situation.

The novel is filled with Catch-22s, but the first one (and the one first given the label) involves WWII fighter pilots and whether they can be grounded based on insanity.

In theory, they can. All they need to do to be grounded is to tell the doctor that they think they're mentally unstable.

Of course, there's a catch: if a pilot is concerned about his own safety and the safety of others, then he's sane enough to fly. Therefore, the doctor can't ground him.

Therefore, there's no way to ground a pilot. Catch-22.

According to our
favorite online encyclopedia, the author and editors went through a variety of numbers before picking the number 22, including 11, 14, 17, and 18, discarding each of those for various reasons.

The book is considered by many to be one of the best of the 20th century. Even though I was an English major, this was my first time reading it. (I sort of avoided 20th century lit any time I could, in favor of Victorian lit. I love me some Dickens.)

I will say that for a book published in 1961, there was a lot more content (both sexual and language) than I expected. It's not intensely graphic like you'd find in a lot of things published today, but there's a good amount of soldiers hanging out with prostitutes and the like, so know that going in if you plan to read it.

It's hard to classify this book. It's wildly funny in parts (I read one section aloud to my husband, and he roared with laughter just like I did). The book is dark and tragic in others. And some parts of great pieces of satire.

Heller is a genius in characterization. There's a big cast, but every person in the book is so well drawn that you know exactly what each person is like, from Danbey to the chaplain to Cathcart to the main character, Yossarian himself. And when something happens to Orr or McWatt or whomever, you know what that means.

Catch-22 is not a fast read, at least, not for me. I couldn't fly through it in a day or two. I had to think and pay attention. One reason is that the chapters aren't always in chronological order (another reason is the author's wit and the commentary and other elements that I feel the need to read and savor rather than skim), but the order in which the story unfolds adds richness to the characters and layers to the story.

It's written in a very different style from what I normally read, but I have to admit that it's brilliant. (Sure beats the socks off other 20th century writers like, oh, Faulkner.)

There were even a couple of times I got close to tears and had to put it down to compose myself. It's a powerful book on many levels, and I'm still thinking about it.

I'll never hear "Catch-22" again in quite the same way.

Heller manages to say things simply but powerfully, such as with one of Yossarian's final lines in the book, a perfect Catch-22 I think every human being runs into at some point in their lives:

"I don't want lots of things I want."

18 comments:

Kristina P. said...

I have never read this book but it sounds fascinating!

Melanie J said...

I think Catch-22 is fantastic.

And I still hate Faulkner. I will always hate Faulkner.

Erin said...

That last line certainly says a lot, doesn't it?

So I wonder why he ended up choosing 22? Why a number? Interesting.

Jo said...

Yummy! I love knowing the basis of words and idioms and sayings. I have this thing about collective nouns. They make my heart sing. Did you know that a flock of larks in flight is called and "exaltation" of larks??? To me, it is delightful and makes me feel a bit giddy.
A knot of toads, a kindle of kittens.
And now, Catch 22. I just might have to read this book!

Carolyn V. said...

Now I am curious why they picked 22, too. Can you fill us in?

Annette Lyon said...

For those interested in why they picked the number 22, click on the link to the Wikipedia article. It's explained there! :)

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

that is fascinating! And funny, b/c I was just thinking of the term 'catch-22' yesterday and wondering where on earth it came from!

Shelley said...

Isn't it weird when you finally read a book that you "should" have read in school? After I read Weathering Heights a few years ago I was dying for a good English class (with a good teacher) to discuss it in.

LisAway said...

I recently read the Jodi Picoult (Handle With Care) I won from Heather of the EO and I LOVED it. Seriously the ONLY thing I didn't like was that she mentioned that something was a catch 22 maybe 6 times during the book. I tried to make myself believe that she was doing it as a sort of technique or something to tie things together but it didn't seem like it at all. It really just seemed like it's a term she uses in her everyday vocabulary too much and it came out that way in the book.

I can't remember if I actually read the book or not in high school, but we at least talked about it (so we probably read it, too. I don't remember ANYTHING I read in any sort of detail.) So I thought everyone knew what a catch 22 was and where the term came from. Thanks Ms. I can't remember your name from 10th grade English.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

That is so cool about the title of this book. Is the author still alive? If so, he's got to be thinking he's pretty hot stuff for adding a word to our vocabulary. :) I will have to read this soon!

Sorry, but I love Faulkner. I mean, I have to be in a certain mood to read him. It certainly isn't a light read. My mind seriously CAN NOT be on any other thing, but I love reading him when I'm in the mood.

Kellie said...

I hated this book in high school. It drove me crazy. I couldn't stand the fact that nothing made any sense in it. I'm glad you were able to read and enjoy it though.

Annette Lyon said...

Alyson,
Here's my deal with Faulkner: He was really good when he wasn't trying to show off. Some of his stuff I actually like. ("Rose for Emily" rocked, and I liked The Unvanquished, among others.)

But when he got into his high-horse mode of "check out how cool I am and can be all amazing and do literary acrobatics" instead of telling a great story in a well-told way (I'm thinking Sound and the Fury in particular, but there are others), then I want to slap the man silly.

Annette Lyon said...

(Oh, and no, Heller isn't alive anymore--died in 1999--but he lived plenty long to see his title become a catch phrase. Must have been really cool.)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I've never read the book. I'll have to pick it up some time. Thanks for sharing this.

Kimberly said...

I am just tickled by the profundity of that last statement. Love it.

Amanda D said...

My husband read the book and then saw the movie and if I am remembering correctly he was very disappointed in the movie. Interesting post, Annete. Thanks!

L.T. Elliot said...

I love your WNW but I think this is one of my favorites. It also happens to be one of the best reviews I've read too. Remind me, should I ever make it, to beg you for one.

As for Faulkner, that "Sound and Fury" one, all I could think was, "What the wha...?" I hated it. Ugh. You're spot on when you talk about showing off. Albeit, I think that "showing off" blew up in his face. (IMO)

Jessica G. said...

This is one of those books that I've avoided reading simply because we were expected to read it (Catcher in the Rye ruined all "required reading" for me). But now, I think I might give it a try.

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