All you need to know about the books you meant to read; CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

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The Independent Culture

by Joseph Heller (1961)Plot: World War II is in glorious swing. Yossarian; a bombardier stationed with the US Air Force on the island of Pianosa, has flown 48 raids and, by rights, should be posted home. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions required for each airman. The only escape is to be diagnosed crazy. But before he can be diagnosed, an airman must ask to be grounded: self-evidently, such a request reveals a high level of sanity. This, Doc Daneeka proudly explains, is catch 22. At the core of Heller's satire is the "soldier in white" in the hospital bandaged from head to toe with only a "ragged hole" for a mouth. Yossarian's extreme disorientation in the presence of this figure convinces him he must escape the mad farce of war. Finally, the colonels agree to release Yossarian from duty if he agrees to "like them", to become "one of the boys". Sickened by this proposition, Yossarian deserts to Sweden and preserves his integrity.

Theme: The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on. For Heller, remaining alive is a fundamental right: Yossarian is at war with both the Germans and the psychotics who run the Air Force. Catch 22 - the argument that defies reason - underlines the irrationality of war.

Style: Sentences lurch into lunacy as language becomes misleading. A hospitalised colonel has "a urologist for his urine, a psychologist for his psyche and a pathologist for his pathos".

Chief Strengths: A grim subject is treated with compassionate hilarity. Apart from Yossarian, nobody escapes the author's scathing wit.

Chief weakness: Heller's satire works because he chooses to ignore what Hitler was about; this selectivity brings intensity but also limitation.

What they thought of it then: Sounding like one of Heller's officers the New York Times thought the book both a "dazzling performance" and "gasping for want of craft and sensibility". Eventually Catch 22 became that rare phenomenon: the arty novel that is a smash hit.

What we think of it now: Catch 22 remains a bible for disaffected youth, confused and depressed by "authority".

Responsible for: The Oxford Dictionary now defines catch-22 as "a dilemma or circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions".