I don’t consider myself well read by any means. When I look into a library, I am embarrassed by the fact that even if I were to spend the rest of my life drowning in the sea of books, I wouldn’t even make it out of the kiddie pool before my hair grayed and my arms sagged and I breathed my last weak, little breath over a page of Tolstoy or Chemometrics for Pattern Recognition. I would die without making a dent in the avalanche of books.
But despite the overwhelming inability to observe all that has been written, I try to read daily. I stretch my fingers, dog-ear my pages, and I sit with invisible authors prodding me to smile when they did and be sad when they were.
Sometimes, I find rubbish among the words, though I can hardly be such a judge having glossed over so little in my lifetime. Other times I stumble upon a great book that will make you close your eyes and imagine that you were having breakfast with the author of the piece and they just told you a funny joke and oh how you both shared in the laughter. In these books and in the little time that I spend drawn into the microcosm of their work, I am often convinced the two of us are long lost pals, and the words are just deeply personal letters jumbled and scrambled.
One such author who I feel such an unspoken camaraderie with is Kurt Vonnegut. Unlike any other novelist before, I feel as though he writes to me personally. His verbal freshness hurtles through the worst of humanity’s troubles and contextualizes my own problems with a dose of hilarity. With each sentence, he scolds his readers yet praises them, entertains yet moralizes them, and most of all, makes them laugh above all else.
Vonnegut is great because he writes not as a man who wishes to be remembered but as a man who wishes to remember man. And like humankind who is a cluster of paradoxes, hypocrisies, and illogical policies, Vonnegut writes with a curious blend of wisdom and bitterness, wit and resignation, and an endless nose thumbing at the Universe. All in all, Vonnegut is a funny man who blurs the subtlety of sadness and happiness in life because as he said in A Man Without a Country, “Life is no way to treat an animal.”
Below is a Kurt Vonnegut bookbag of sorts because if you read nothing else or if you decide that the flurry of books is too daunting, then Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start and end your literary escapade. It’s enough, but just barely and so it goes, Vonnegut would tell you.
Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Arguably Vonnegut’s most recognized and quoted book, Slaughterhouse Five is not so much an antiwar book (there’s better luck in “writing an anti-glacier book”) as it is a discussion of the inevitability of hardship, dying, and those brief illusions of a controlled, stable reality. Employing the harrowing yet uplifting phrase that appears detached from the prose it self – so it goes – the narrative suggests an acquiescence to a life, and ultimately death, that we can barely call our own due to circumstances that we are as much in control of as a bird in a birdcage. The story ends that way too – birds chirp and chirp and chirp again.
Favourite Quote: “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
The Sirens of Titan
As Vonnegut’s second foray into fiction, the 1959 tale follows Malachi Constant as he travels from Earth to Mars to Mercury to Titan and then back to Earth again. Like Slaughterhouse, Sirens of Titan mirrors Vonnegut’s principle of resignation to fate and the realization that all things, us included, are a series of accident no more permanent than a whoopee cushion in a rock concert. Everything is predicted in the first chapter: Malachi Constant’s father racks up a fortune by sheer luck and a handy Bible, Martians invade Earth and are massacred senselessly, and Tralfamadorian’s – an alien species that know all truth in the Universe – sift through space and time with ease of a light switch. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s Vonnegut becoming Vonnegut for the first time in his fiction and staying that way throughout all his other novels.
Favourite Quote: “If there are such things as angels, I hope they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Kurt’s letters capture the dark, wry humour that he shared with his friends and seeped into his writing. The laughter bled into the pages is cold and hard and sometimes it feels like a cough, but you see bits and pieces of the Kurt with each word. As his life flashes by in sentences, you want to tell him that everything will be all right in time; all he has to do is keep writing, just keep writing, and luckily for us, he does. Here are some snippets.
In a class assignment: “Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.”
To the editors of The New York Times: ”Dear Editors: It may gives us some comfort in these worrisome times to know that in all of history only one country has actually been crazy enough to detonate atomic weapons in midst of civilian populations, turning unarmed men, women and children into radioactive soot and bonemeal. And that was a long, long time ago now.”
To Norman Mailer: “I am cuter than you are.”
This book is about a fairy godmother. It isn’t exactly fairytale – it deals with Herman Campbell, a fictitious Nazi propagandist. He is awaiting trial for his war crimes perpetuated during World War Two. Eventually he, like all of us, dies, and like Kurt Vonnegut reminds us: “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Poof. Gone. Kaput. Show’s over, folks.
Favourite Quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”