I read Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch-22 in my teens. I can’t say for sure, honestly, that I “got” it the first time (I read it several more times in those years when I had the time to read books more than once) but I can say it exploded my notion of what a novel could be. It was the first book that really, really moved me on an emotional and intellectual level. It purely knocked me out, over and over. I still have that ragged mass-market paperback.
It’s fifty years, this week, since the novel released on 11 November 1961, and the book and its author have been in publishing news all this fall. There’ve been critical essays, a well-reviewed first biography (Just One Catch, by Tracy Daugherty), and a memoir (Yossarian Slept Here) by Heller’s daughter Erica.
Whether or not you’ve read the book, though (and you should), you have probably used the phrase catch-22 in more than one sentence. I know I have. I can remember when my speech was full of references to things that were catch-22s; I remember the utter delight in using it, this new word to describe certain absurdist situations. (My preferred dictionary’s definition cites an early usage by writer Mary Murphy: “The show-business catch-22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked.”) It enchants me now to imagine being one of the millions of users who pushed catch-22 onto the pages of Merriam-Webster.
(It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land also shipped in 1961, and that book gave us grok—meaning to understand profoundly and intuitively. Even more than catch-22, grok fills a hole in our lexicographical universe; there are times when no other word will do.)
Catch-22 the novel has everything: irony, symbolism, farce, heroic ideals, big sweeping statements. It changed the way an entire generation thought about bureaucracy, insanity, violence, and the immorality of war. “For a book to survive half a century,” author Morris Dickstein writes, “it must excite passion in individual readers and touch a nerve in the national psyche.” Catch-22 is that book. I couldn’t have known it would soon be considered a literary masterpiece, that it would still be alive and kicking fifty years on, but I do remember that holy cow! feeling it gave me. Think I’ll reread it to celebrate. You should too!
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