The world seems to be split in two when it comes to the book: those that adore it, and those that abhor it. It’s one of my favourites.
This book in a nutshell:
It’s set during the Second World War, and people are stressed beyond belief, not knowing if they’ll live to see another day, which is a perfect backdrop to show how nonsensical people can get when they can hide behind bureaucracy. When you think you might die sometime later this week, you really don’t care how weirdly other people act, after all it’s them trying to survive in some way, which makes you act weirdly because you know they don’t give a damn about you either. The problem arises when the combined weirdness of people trying to live gets everyone killed. There can be sense in nonsense, eventually.
What this book taught me:
Very few things are black and white. If you look close enough, you are bound to find some conflict. This a blanket statement, but I’ve found that people that tend to opt for the black/white outlook on life hate this book because to enjoy this book you have to embrace the contradictions to a point you can appreciate the irony.
Some of my favourite quotes:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”
“What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”
“From now on I’m thinking only of me.”
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”
“He died an old man.”
“I thought you said he was young?”
“Well, he died. You don’t get any older than that.”
This book isn’t about war as much as it’s about our cognitive biases and our ability to accept ideas that don’t gel together, and is an exercise in looking conflicting ideas. If we start being able to see these conflicts without having any personal claim we can start finding ways to fix them.
Some real life examples:
Democracy is getting a lot of people, who have no training in how to pick a person to run a country, to pick the best person to run a country.
Boiling milk to make hot chocolate to drink. Blowing on it to make it cooler to drink.
Most people, almost every single person on the planet, thinks they’ll do better in the future, whether it’s saving for retirement, getting fitter, etc., but the person they are today is the “future person” they hoped for yesterday. There is no tomorrow, only today.
Doing everything you can to make sure nothing bad happens, so that you can get a little bit of the money back you spent on making sure nothing bad happens.
Deciding you want to work the best hours of the day, for the most active years of your life, to get money so that you can spend the best hours of the day when you’re almost dead, to do what you really want.