Catch-22 50th anniversary

Books that changed our language and our lives

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and even those who’ve never read it have benefitted from having its title to hand to describe a no-win situation. It got us thinking of other books (and characters) that have become so deeply embedded in the culture that they are inextricably part of our vernacular. Can you guess which ones have shown up most often on the American Library Association’s list of banned books?

Catch-22: Heller spent ten years thinking of the book as “Catch-18“. But that doesn’t trip so easily off the tongue, does it?

Peyton Place: The original Desperate Housewives. Your average small town, looks clean and prissy on the outside, but a peek under the hood reveals nothing but scandal, debauchery, and lies.

Shylock: from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice –one of the most controversial stage roles in the theater, and a favorite term of Tony Soprano.

Romeo and Juliet: If a young guy on the make is a Romeo, then what’s a Juliet?

The Scarlet Letter: The one you don’t want to wear on your school sweater.

Brave New World: About the monitoring of web use by companies you work for, you might say, “It’s very ‘Brave New World.'” Of course, author Aldous Huxley himself was borrowing from the Bard, who uses the phrase in The Tempest.

1984: When George Orwell dreamed up the phrase “Big Brother is watching you,” he likely never guessed how much his novel would come to stand for the power of electronic survelliance — even more than Huxley’s title.

Through the Looking Glass: The sequel to Alice in Wonderland, it’s this title that probably best reflects where we all feel we’ve landed after trying to follow the logic of the debt ceiling debate.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”: Melville’s  clerk, who prefers not to, is the emblem of those addicted to tedium. The patron saint of PlayStation? 

The Ugly American: Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s 1958 political novel was a bestseller. If you’ve spent any time in Europe during the summer when the dollar was strong, you get the idea.



Frankenstein: The name of Mary Shelley’s mad scientist became attached to the monster he created. Now, it stands for anything cobbled together, brought to life and potentially out of control: think legislation.

Scrooge:  Dickens created the archetype in A Christmas Carol. Everybody knows a Scrooge — most of us may even have one in the family. 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: Worse than a Scrooge, a Grinch won’t just spoil your holiday mood, he’ll steal all the trappings.

Lolita: Temptation, innocence, desire, and the projection of more than one dirty old man.



If we’ve left out your favorite, let us know on Facebook or Twitter.