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