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Reading the Classics: There’s just one catch!

“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” –Yossarian, Catch-22

It’s not often that I pick up a “classic” that has so much timely relevance as this month’s read. Sure, you can find parallels to modern society in just about any classic you read…I think that’s essential in making a book a classic. But with our nation mired in numerous unpopular foreign conflicts for the past decade or more, Catch-22 really made an impact on me as to how absurd the waging of war really is! Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, and YES, I’d definitely call this a masterpiece, is the epitome of wartime chaos and absurdity.  But apart from the ever-popular satire of war and the always-timely lampooning of the bureaucrats that wage war, Catch-22 is made a classic in another way.  I honestly can’t remember reading a book that balanced the evocation of emotions so well. I’ll often read a funny book or a horrific book. I’ve even been known to pick up the sappy book when I need a good cry! But with Catch-22, I was reading stuff that was absurdly funny, scarily real and truly sad all at the same time.  Just the idea behind the title itself is at once funny, confusing, sad and frighteningly TRUE…our hero, Yossarian, a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corp during WWII is trying to save his skin by getting out of any more bombing missions. He tries to convince the squadron doctor that he is crazy and needs to be grounded but “There was only one catch and that was 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. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.” This is confusingly brilliant and worse, frighteningly believable of a government that many these days would say has lost touch with reality! And this book is full of the stuff. I can’t recall the number of times I found myself genuinely laughing only to have that laugh turn into a feeling of “Oh wow! That’s not really funny at all because it’s sadly true!” Or a realization like, “Wait. That’s not a caricature of a government official. It’s a portrait!”

But, laughter is the best medicine, as they say! And, for me at least, the comedy of Catch-22 outweighs the sad realizations that come with the reading, leaving me with a (mostly) positive feeling. Yet just below the comic absurdity and the outrageous caricatures of power-mad, war-mongering bureaucrats there is a definite sense of sadness for our system, sympathy for those hurt by our system and anger for those that control our system.  All in all, I think I’d say that (as far as classic lit goes) this book is very high on my list of favorites. Oh! One more thing. If you don’t have the time or patience to take on the oft-confusing structure of a Catch-22 reading, there is a feature film version!

- Dan Winsky, Acquisitions

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