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  • Writer's pictureCraig Messenger

Judging Books by Their Covers | 007

Catch 22 was the first book I ever read and so naturally it holds a special place in my heart. The journals and stories that I wrote around that time are typed in Heller, and I kind of cringe at them now in the same way that I think everyone cringes at their old stuff. But a part of me here now, inside a fuller wardrobe, is pleased to be able to pinpoint the moment where I first started trying on author’s clothes.

In his day Heller was the height of fashion, in a way – not in his prose but in his ideas. It would be hard to imagine a farce that was more committed to its crusade of irony than this book, and that is where Heller unloaded his resources, leaving the pretty phrases to the poets who hadn’t seen what he saw. Catch 22 is a book of brutalist architecture: repetitive, dark, bruising. This is now my third time through and I still can’t exactly tell you what it’s about, but not in the Pynchon type of way. The book has a clear point. It has several, and choosing which one the book is about seems reductive and counterintuitive. My best attempt would be to say that the story is one man’s attempt to portray the actual experience and emotions of going to war in the most accurate way possible. And he does that by writing a nonsensical and ridiculous story.

The covers here aren’t super great, so we’ll start off with the worst of the bunch to build the suspense.

This one is the most popular these days, and it is the edition that I first read. I really don’t understand why it has caught on so much. I still haven’t been able to make out the meaning of the red caricature. Yes, the puppet-y posture is obvious, but why is he red? A Red Scare! Well, the McCarthyism angle of the story doesn’t really seem substantial enough to hold up as the lone symbol on the cover. His gangly pose makes him resemble the bandaged and forgotten soldier in white, but the redness seems to wash away any true resemblance there.

The larger point is, if you’re going for the minimal angle, you at least have to be pretty. And this one is overly minimal. It’s basically blank.


The symbolism here that the military planes and crew are just play things for the big Uncle is easy to make out. The first thing that I thought of though, looking at all of these small, intricate pieces, was Orr working on his stove, or rather the stove that he was fixing up for Yossarian to use after he teehee-ed his way out of Pianosa.

All of the teeny, tiny pieces with their frivolous complexity, along with Orr’s unwavering patience to devote to them, drew Yossarian mad, just like everything else did. But he did appreciate using that stove once Orr fixed it up.

The older I get and the more I read Catch 22, the more I realize that I have somewhat subconsciously devoted my own personal life to becoming Orr in basically every possible way, and that was both a harrowing and illuminating discovery on my latest read through. It’s not harrowing in the sense that Orr is a bad character or anything – he probably is the best character to strive towards in the book, although that may be biased, coming from an Orr.

No - it’s harrowing because I’ve loosely wondered for a long time where all of these disparate threads of me came from. They each seemed fairly foreign and isolated from each other, and he’s not a perfect North Pole, but Orr has clearly held a positive magnetism for me from the very beginning.


The symbols are simple and accurate here, giving a good summary of what the book is about. Yossarian, our main character, is a humble navigator and bombardier who begins to do everything he can to sabotage the war effort, or at least his own participation in it, while his peers continue to politely follow orders. Yossarian is selfish but burdened still with a guilty conscience, and so he quarrels with the idea that each duty he shirks is simply more duty for his comrades to carry. He has no way out.


My personal favorite and the edition that I just read. It has no symbolism but it is just regal in its beauty. Wonderful color palette, you can just imagine the actual Catch 22 being scribed in this very font and color on some important national text somewhere, displayed behind thick plexiglass – should the very text of Catch 22 ever have to actually be written down in order to be enforceable. Which, of course, it would have to be.

Unless the very central theme of Catch 22’s text was that it doesn’t have to be written down in order to be enforceable. That it doesn’t have to exist to be. Which, of course, is indeed the very central theme of Catch 22’s text. And that’s what makes it the best catch that there is, that Catch 22.

Against my better judgment, I just can’t help but love this book, even when I find myself skimming over most of the narration, and also a good chunk of the dialogue once it inevitably regresses to repetitive cacophony. But I know the lay of the land well enough to focus in when one of Heller’s killer bookends is coming up, like the letters to Doc’s wife, or Hungry Joe’s death, or the novel’s last line. Snowden’s secret still hits me as hard as any page in any book I’ve ever read, even all these years later. Heller is clearly skilled enough that he could have built a book that was comprehensively lovely and enjoyable while still telling these stories if he wanted to. And while I would have certainly liked that book more, he would probably label it antiseptic and hollow, and really just missing the point.

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