Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What Is the Big Deal About "Catch-22"?

Now a number of friends whose opinions I respect have told me Catch-22 is one of the greatest books ever. I recently picked it up again - I have tried reading it at least a half dozen times before - thinking that this time would be different, and that with relatively few responsibilities for a few days, I might actually finish it. Nope. Once again, I couldn't get to page 50. I just found it too dumb, and the jokes too unfunny. Well, I'm finally giving up; from here on in, I'm never going to bother again, and the book will be consigned to the black hole of my book shelf, placed alongside the wonders that are Capitalist Diversity and Change: Recombinant Governance and Institutional Entrepreneurs and Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice.

I don't know, maybe it's me. It is striking that ever since I entered grad school more than two years ago, I've probably read - at best - five works of fiction. This is a dramatic change from my high school and college days, when I used to read fiction voraciously. I just can't be bothered anymore, I don't think. For me, it's all about opportunity costs: why read something made up when I could be learning more about the world? Yes, I realize it's not a completely black-and-white distinction (for instance, I probably learned as much about World War I from reading All Quiet on the Western Front as any history or poli sci book I've ever read). But the general point stands, and that is that I simply feel like fiction is a bit of a waste of time, especially when there's so much non-fiction out there that I want to get my hands on and haven't yet had the time to read. And in this particular case, I can't see what the fuss is about - I've tried reading this so-called classic many times, and simply never got into it.


shariq said...

Interesting post but I completely disagree. I think that for people who think about public policy, reading novels can serve as excellent reminders about the core of human nature.

As you touched on, I especially enjoy historical novels which again give you a sense of perspective and appreciation that things tend to go in cycles.

I finished reading Amitav Ghosh's 'The Glass Palace' a couple of weeks ago. Apart from being a great read, it also touched upon issues of colonialism, patriotism, the nature of self-made industrialists and a whole range of other things in a subtle and nuanced way which is almost impossible for non-fiction writers.

Ali Eteraz made a really interesting comment a while back about how great philosophers have never produced great novels.

{CPM - copy paste material} said...

i wanted to be funny about this comment, but i am just despairing.

first of all, you don't like catch-22. i can sort of see that - after all to each his own.

but secondly, as a pakistani, saying that fiction teaches you less about the world is slightly ludicrous. firstly, we have very few genuine accounts of our own history - so much of it has been consigned to the censor board. and even then, can you seriously learn more from an academic work about the partition, or partition part II (1971) than from a short story by, say Manto?

nikhil said...

i was quite taken aback by the following sentence:

But the general point stands, and that is that I simply feel like fiction is a bit of a waste of time

What about entertainment? By that rationale, i hope you don't watch sports, films, or any sort of television at all.

bubs said...

Catch-22 is worth reading in its entirety because about a quarter of the book is pure genius. The rest can drag a bit.

And while most (but certainly not all) fiction can be a waste of time, why are you saying that like its something negative?

Ahsan said...


My point was that I find the absorption of facts, histories, and theories entertaining. So when I choose to read a book, I will almost always choose to read non-fiction, because *within* the category of entertainment-by-reading, I find non-fiction more interesting. To use the examples you cited, it would be the equivalent of me deciding to watch TV, and then trying to reach a decision of The Sopranos vs. reality tv; or deciding to watch sports, and then trying to reach a decision between ice hockey and the NBA.

Bubs: What I should have said was "waste of recreational time". If I'm doing something for fun, I want to have fun doing it, you know?