Catch 22
Joseph Heller

Originally published by Simon & Shuster, 1961
50th Anniversary Edition published 2011
ISBN 978-1-4516-2117-4

HellerSome of you (many of you?) may have already read this book. It was originally published over fifty years ago, and it is now hailed as one of the masterpieces of American literature.

I was aware of the book, if for no other reason than for it's being the genesis of the expression "Catch-22". I was also vaguely aware that it was somehow a satire about war and thus not to my taste, since I prefer history or perhaps historical fiction, narratives that have a beginning and an end, and perhaps lessons and conclusions. Thus I had no inclination to read "Catch-22" until my son gave it to me as a Christmas present, on the grounds that it was a famous book and because he knew that I was "interested in military matters."

Now that I have read it, however, I think I understand why it is so famous. It is funny, logical, horrifying, revolting -- and absolutely riveting. The closest comparison that I can make with other books/movies in my experience is "M.A.S.H.", but M.A.S.H. was constrained by the film medium. Catch-22, being a book, suffers from no such constraints and, also because of being a book, its content is much more funny/logical/horrifying. (Mike Nichols made a movie of "Catch-22" in the 1970s, but it was -- no surprise to me -- not very successful.)

One of the really nice features of the 50th Anniversary Edition is that it includes a selection of the contemporary reviews and criticism from when it was first published. It also includes some review material from the 1994 edition and some material from the author describing how the book came into being. I was really glad to see this because, despite being fascinated, I really felt sick and depressed when I had finished reading the book. The additional material reminded me of the context in which this book was written: the unquantifiable threat and tangible fear of nuclear war, the Korean "war" and, by the time the book was published and became widely known, the Vietnam War. There was also a palpable distrust of government statements (i.e., propaganda) and the military-industrial complex; it was also the time, as one reviewer pointed out, of Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair, an incident that has an uncanny and unsettling parallel in Catch-22.

I don't think of myself as particularly religious in the institutional sense, but the lesson that I draw from this book is the absolute and total bankruptcy of unbridled self-interest. Life has absolutely no meaning without some kind of moral compass; indeed, there is "right" and there is "wrong", and focusing on the "right" is what draws us together in community, which then leads to common purpose and concepts like loyalty.

And although the book is set during World War II, reviewers point out that the book is, as much as anything else, a commentary on our society and the human condition. And that leads directly back to each one of us. We live in a democracy; our government is us. And, has been frequently observed, "A nation gets the government that it deserves." So this book is indeed important: it is a portrait of where we might end up if we are not vigilant.

I will not conclude by saying, "Enjoy!" But, for those of you who have not already read this book, I can nevertheless commend it to you.

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