The Concord Monitor asked for short essays on novels which affected their readers in their youth. Here’s what I sent:
It’s hard to choose between George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, two books which informed and inspired the anti-authoritarian spirit of my high school years. Both novels center on an “everyman” hero trapped in a world whose rules crush the human spirit. Both gave their titles to the English language.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, peered into the future and foresaw a society in which the state crushes all dissent and Big Brother is always watching. Propaganda determines which thoughts are thinkable. Perpetual war keeps the populace focused on external enemies. Lies are truth. Resistance is futile.
Catch 22, published in 1961, looked backward to the European theatre of World War Two. Where Orwell’s world was grim, Heller’s was absurd, filled with unforgettable characters. Who can forget Major Major, with whom a soldier could only meet when he wasn’t there? Or Milo Minderbinder, the entrepreneurial mess hall officer who makes a fortune selling chocolate-covered cotton? Amidst the horrors of battle, the hero Yossarian knows he’s sane because the war has driven him crazy. Resistance is imperative.
Together, these novels equipped me with a readiness to question authority and spot the absurd. How else can one face a time when the government of the world’s leading democracy is tracking your phone calls and the person who reveals the truth is a wanted criminal? How else can we understand politicians who use the term “right to work” to mean “work without rights?” Resistance is imperative. Laughter is essential.
October 5, 2013