by Joseph Heller
In recent months I've grown troubled by the number of 1960's classics that I've omitted from the 1001 Books project simply because I'd already read them. The absences are really noticeable beginning in the 1960's, and beginning, in fact, with Catch-22, published in 1961 and almost certainly the first "adult" book I read as a 12 or 13 year old. The title as used in the book refers to the idea that an American bomber crew member can't be relieved from flying missions unless he's crazy, but that any bomber crew member who doesn't want to fly anymore missions is sane.
Since publication and ensuing popularity, Catch-22 has expanded to mean any situation which is formally described as a "double bind." Although set during World War II, the publication date and popularity with college students very much meant that Catch-22 was often discussed in terms of the Vietnam War. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was published one year later, Catch-22 helped to define the anti-state critique of the 1960's counter culture.
Both Cuckoo's Nest (the insane asylum) and Catch-22 (army) developed a critique of large institutions as dehumanizing and irrational. Both featured hero-protagonist's whose heroism came from their own rational/irrational resistance to the inhumanity of the institutional forces arrayed against them. Less can be said for Joseph Heller, who has essentially wound up as a one-hit wonder and second tier talent.
Still though, you can't take Catch-22 away for him. It's a perennial on "top 100" book lists of the century.