"History is merely a list of surprises," I said. "It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again. Please write that down." --Kurt Vonnegut in Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
Once upon a time (the summer of 2005, to be precise, just two years before Vonnegut's death), a slender book with a provocative title--A Man Without a Country--gained what the publishing industry likes to call "traction." It was written by a great American author who had, long ago, penned the equally provocative line: "Practically nobody on Earth is an American."
During the early 1970s, I, like thousands of others, "discovered" Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I continued reading his books for many years until ("So it goes.") I stopped for a long time. A Man Without a Country brought me back into the fold, and I've been rereading him ever since--Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Welcome to the Monkey House... and so on.
In A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut recalls, mostly joking, that although he set his first novel, Player Piano, in Schenectady, N.Y., and wrote about General Electric, he was classified as a science fiction writer. Maybe we've always been wrong about him. Maybe he was writing nonfiction all along and we're only now catching up.
Whatever the case, Beach Reads season is nearly over and Fall Election Reads Season is ramping up, so I'm out on the campaign trail for Vonnegut. Read anything; read everything, for the first time or the fifth.
Consider the answer he once gave to a woman asking for his advice about bringing a child into this terrifying world: "I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society."
I officially endorse reading Vonnegut for a better world during this election season. --Robert Gray, contributing editor