Vonnegut

“Any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government.”

VonnegutThis is a bit of dialogue from Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano—his sardonic, dystopian view of a socialist future society. The future: circa 1960 because Player Piano was published in 1952. This quote has nothing to do with the story I’m about to tell. I’ve only included it to illustrate Vonnegut’s irreverent nature. He’s a rebel, a naysayer, unhappy with the status quo. He’s unafraid to tell it as he sees it. And he sees a lot of wrong. He’ got a lot to say.

At twenty-one years old and graduating from college, I didn’t read. What I mean is I wasn’t a reader. In school, I gutted through whatever books my teachers assigned, and I devoured everything written by J.R.R. Tolkien. But other than Hobbit fantasy, I never picked up a book with the purpose of entertainment or escape. Back then, I believed that’s why God invented TV.

After college, I moved back in with my parents to regroup. I wasn’t done growing up yet, I was unserious and immature. I was facing a lifetime of work, and I only knew that I wanted a job that was fun and easy and paid a good salary. Bored, penniless, carless, my parents’ home in the suburbs felt like a prison. I had nothing to do, no friends to hang out with. Each night after dinner, I laced up my Chuck Taylors and went for a long run. And when I got home and cleaned up, I stayed up all night reading books.

Because I’d previously read nothing, finding good books was easy. I stuck with the classics—Flannery O’Conner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Earnest Hemmingway, Mark Twain. Before the internet, finding a new author was a chore. You needed to research and talk with other readers and browse the library shelves. I couldn’t muster the effort. I simply read the authors I’d heard of.

For my first vacation as a professional, I visited my friend Brian in St. Pete’s Beach, Florida. I stayed with him for a week. Brian had to work, so each day I slept late and then moved out to the beach to read. I quickly finished the books I brought with me, so I rifled Brian’s bookshelf for something decent. What I came up with was Kurt Vonnegut. A small, simple book called Galapagos. It’s about the end of the world. Vonnegut wrote fourteen novels and I’ve read them all. Galapagos was the start of what we now call a binge.

I’m thinking about this now because I’m reading Player Piano (again). On Thursday night I finished a book, and on Friday I got off work after the library closed. Caught with nothing to read, I browsed my basement bookshelf. There’s not much on it. Five years ago, we had a minor basement flood. Not enough to do any damage, but we wanted to get the wooden bookshelves off the floor. After unloading hundreds of books, stacking them precariously on a metal-frame futon for a week, Susan and I faced the chore of putting them all back on the shelves. We decided instead to box them up and give them to a lending library.

Now there’s maybe forty books. They’re all excellent. The best of the collection. The books we couldn’t bear to give up. There’s a lot of Vonnegut. He’s an author I can read over and over. His stories are simple but there’s a lot to take in. To his chagrin, he was always classified as a science fiction writer. Yes, he wrote fiction about science. But he really wrote about ideas. Big ideas.

As our soul passes through millennia of lives, we encounter the same circle of beings again and again. This is one of Vonnegut’s ideas. And it’s one that resonates with me. It’s the basis of my spiritual beliefs. Over the years I’ve dwelled on it, modified it and made it my religion. Yes, my religion comes from Kurt Vonnegut.

Those who we count as our friends, living or dead, at the end of our life, we will meet again as friends in our next life. It is their role to nurture and aid us throughout our life. Those who challenge us will continue to challenge us when we meet again. It is their role to teach us lessons. Over time, the role of a being will surely change, but we can always count on meeting those who matter to us again in our future lives.  

Weird? Maybe. But I’m certain this is true. And it leaves me with the exact sort of comfort that the next guy gets from believing in heaven.

Thirty-some years since I graduated college, above all my other hobbies, reading is the one that has stuck. I read every single day. Over the course of my life, I’ve used many of my activities to define me. I’m a runner. I’m a writer. I’m a drinker. Maybe all that’s true, at one point of another. But through it all, thanks to Kurt Vonnegut and a hundred other authors, I’m a reader.

15 thoughts on “Vonnegut

    • Running in Chucks was a nod to my rebellious nature. I thought running shoes were “bullshit marketing.” In truth, I couldn’t have paid for them anyway. Even today, I push my shoes twice as far as anyone else I know.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Kurt Vonnegut. – L.F. McCabe – Author

  2. While I haven’t read Player Piano (yet), I can relate to growing up more a viewer than a reader. I wonder how many writers were slow or resistant to becoming readers, and how long it takes them to realize how necessary it is to writing. Great story!

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    • Thanks for the kudos. I was a writer before a reader–I wrote a lot of poetry in college. It’s hard to quantify how reading has improved my writing because it’s been going on so long. But I agree, the two should go hand in hand.

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  3. Ah, another reader. My first love, and ongoing, although with varying intensity. I like Vonnegut, and your post reminds me that he’d be a good revisit.
    The spiritual quote fits my belief system as well. Can’t “prove it” of course, but it feels right to me, on both an intuitive and practical level.

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  4. I am a reader as well. I do the Goodreads challenge and I put myself at 25 books a year (currently at 22 – things are on target). I like Vonnegut as well. Slaughter House 5, Bluebeard and Mother NIght are my favorites. My favorite Vonnegut quote: “We cannot get rid of mankind’s fleetingly wicked wishes. We can get rid of the machines that make them. I give you a holy word: DISARM.”

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  5. I never knew anyone could run with Chucks on. I’m pretty sure even thinking about it is giving me blisters.

    As a voracious reader who will read anything from Vonnegut to the cereal box in front of me, I’m glad you whittled your bookshelf down to the truly necessary and shared the rest with others. Lending libraries are where I grew up and escaped into other worlds. I really try to only keep the precious few on my bookshelf… Everything else goes on the Kindle!

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    • Ah, e-books. I’m not there yet. The Kindle just doesn’t feel the same. I don’t miss the books we gave away. I do see them in the lending library from time to time and sometimes I wonder if I should borrow one of them. What I’d really like to do is discuss them with the other people who read them.

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  6. I think every reader develops an attachment to an author at some point. We inevitably find that one person who writes the kinds of words that crawl into our brains and stick there in a perfectly comfortable way, who makes us feel understood or enlightened or inspired or safe.

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