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There’s always a catch

12 Apr

Catch-22 is an interesting read, but also an extremely annoying one. To explain why, I have to give a bit of background.

A while ago, I was at a seminar at my local university. The speaker had been trying for years to understand why his students’ marks, rather than forming the standard bell-shaped distribution, were bi-modal. He had thought there was some difference between the two groups of students, but has more recently come to suspect that it’s more to do with the subject.

Some topics in a given discipline are fairly loosely-connected and can be learned in any order without too much trouble. Other topics are related: you cannot really understand topic B until you’ve grasped topic A. Thus, when learning a set of tightly-connected topics, if you fall behind, you go into a downward spiral – topic A is hard to pick up because you missed the lectures etc, topic B is hard to pick up because you haven’t understood topic A, and before you know it topic C comes along and you haven’t got a hope of understanding that.

This is based on the idea that we learn by metaphorically building outwards from the existing structure of our knowledge/understanding. So what’s this got to do with Catch-22? Well, besides the idea of getting behind and there being nothing you can do to escape.

It’s the writing style. The book is written very stream-of-consciousness. It’s like sitting in on a conversation between people who have known each other for years and have a wealth of shared experiences. Topics seem to shift haphazardly; intriguing things are mentioned that you’d really like to know more about, but before you get a chance things have moved on again. This is probably a deliberate stylistic choice relating to the stressed-to-the-brink-of-insanity life in a WW2* army camp, but it makes the book hard to get into. You’re left with a lot of floating chunks of information without anywhere to attach them to. Important characters are mentioned as asides, making it very hard to keep track of who is who (for me at least, who has a terrible track record at remembering names).

Fortunately, I feel I’m starting to get the hang of that aspect now that I’m a few chapters in. What’s still a little annoying is the feeling of over-wordiness. It’s not quite sesquipedalian loquaciousness, but there are times when even I feel a simpler word would suffice. For example, a character’s smile is described as “unctuous and benignant”. Now, I thought at first that ‘benignant’ was a delightful portmanteau of ‘benign’ and ‘malignant’, but no, it’s just another way of saying ‘benevolent’.

Still, it is “literature” after all. 😉

* I’m assuming WW2 – it hasn’t been specifically mentioned. The book was published ~15 years after the war, but it is about bomber pilots in Italy.

Edit: Added a sentence to paragraph five to (hopefully) clarify the connection with learning.

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1 Comment

Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Catch 22

 

One response to “There’s always a catch

  1. Alison Jenkin

    April 13, 2011 at 9:13 am

    It’s a long time since I read it, but the film is even more confusing as it flits back and forth between events/characters. At least with the book you can always go back a few pages and read again .And you are learning some new words!

     

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