I feel like I am finally gaining traction on this challenge, though I am not entirely confident I will make it on time. It seemed so easy at the beginning. I know I read more than 60 books a year normally. Hmmm. Perhaps I need to keep better track after this and see how much I am really reading.
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Where did I get the book and how many pages?
I purchased this book before I began the challenge when a new batch of classic books arrived at my local PX. It clocks in with 453 pages of actual book, and an additional 80 or so pages of historical context and study materials, which I skipped. I was reading for fun, not education on this one.
Have I read this book before?
No. I am ashamed of my high school now.
What do I already know?
I have heard situations described as ‘a catch-22’ for many years of my life, and I am pretty sure I have even described them that way in the past. Generally speaking it describes an impossible situation, something you absolutely cannot win. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of situation. Assumedly not every situation where it is used is an instance of correct usage. I would guess it is similar to people describing unfortunate circumstances as ironic; 90% of the time people use the term they are incorrect and not aware because it is close enough to correct they cannot see the subtleties that make them wrong. This is the reason why I purchased the book to begin with, and made a conscious choice to not say ‘catch-22.’ I did not want to be making a mistake using a common phrase incorrectly when the information on how to use it was easily available to me.
I also learned when reading the front cover this is a book about war. I suppose I should have already known that, but oh well.
What do I think now?
There seems to be a rhythm to this book, one I did not get into right away. You are thrown in immediately with a group of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, doctors, a chaplain, and commanding officers in Italy during WW2. People and events are referenced often, even though they have not technically been introduced. For the first several chapters I felt as though I was struggling to keep up with who everyone is, and what was going on. Quite bluntly I thought they were all crazy, and I wasn’t sure any of it was going to make any sense. After I caught on I realized, they were all crazy and it wasn’t going to make any sense.
This was the beauty and the semi-accuracy of this book when it references fighters in war. (I only claim semi-accuracy because I have no firsthand experience, having never fought in a war.) What it comes down to is this; the commanders want more out of those running missions. Their reasons will vary, but the result is the same. We need more. The fighters, whatever their position, will have mixed feelings about this. Some will be happy to continue and have their own reasons for doing so. Others will hate every minute of it and want to go home. Naturally, the majority will probably have both feelings at one time or another; I want to go home, but I understand and will do this important job because I see how it needs to be done. In such a charged situation, there will be many reasons to want to do many things, and people’s individual actions may not always make sense. Additionally, government is notorious for slow and, well, unusual, paperwork practices. Some of the paperwork related situations made me amused in a way that may say something about my mental state.
As to the phrase, catch-22, I’m not sure as many people were using it wrong as I had assumed. In the beginning the rule known as catch-22 was very simple. If you are crazy, you cannot be sent to fly a mission, and therefore you are able to stay grounded; if you request to stay grounded, you are sane and must fly the mission. Only a crazy person would want to fly the missions, but only a sane person can. It sounds pretty close to damned if you do, damned if you don’t. No matter what you do to try to do to prove you shouldn’t be able to fly, you are probably proving you should fly.
This sounds slightly narrow, however as the book progresses, there are other instances were it is referenced simply as an excuse to keep someone from doing something. Towards the end of the book there is an indication that catch-22 might not be an actual official rule so much as an excuse to do and say whatever seems necessary in the moment. In this more broad context, almost everyone who uses it as a saying would technically be right.
I only have one problem with this book. I am beginning to feel a theme in these readings; the book does not end. At least not in anyway I would consider an actual ending. I’m inserting a spoiler alert, but I’ll try to keep it from ruining your experience completely if I can. The main character (or one of them) is a bombardier by the name of Yossarian. He is almost always trying to get out of the war, and does his runs most unenthusiastically. As the book is ending, he seems to have finally made the mental connections necessary to go home, but has also ticked someone off. He knows what he needs to do and where he needs to go and is off to go take care of it. Someone tries to stab him, and he dodges. The end.
I mean seriously?! Is my book missing a few hundred pages? I don’t feel like a book has to have a happy ending to make me happy, but it should end. What happened to the person trying to kill him? There was an indication that they were gone, but then they are brought back. I could learn to deal with the inconclusiveness of Yossarian getting to where he was going and just chalk it up to reader imagination. The exact phrasing of the end left me feeling it was too open, with too many possibilities. It did not completely ruin the book for me, but it did leave a sour aftertaste.
Should you read this book before you die?
Yes. Read it twice. The first time to catch the rhythm, the second time to have it from the beginning and look for all the things you missed the first time. It is an interesting method of writing a story, not exactly in chronological order, and not bothering to explain the time jumps. It is a strange story, but then, war is a strange business.
Coming up next is Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, followed by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.