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self-portrait from
Breakfast of Champions

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Kurt Vonnegut
His Life Is an Open Book

There's nothing I can tell you about the work of Kurt Vonnegut which you couldn't learn better yourself by reading his books. This to me has long been his appeal--that he is so straightforward, that he says what he means, that he explains his allusions rather than make the "uninformed" reader feel bad or lost for not getting the literary or historical reference. It was a revelation to me when at 14 I read these words: "There are two symbols in this book..." What!? Symbols were what we were being taught to dutifully flush out of hiding in my high school English classes. Reading was about interpretation, all texts were obscure codes needing keen analytical skill to decipher.

Vonnegut subverts that assumption, often repeating that reading is hard enough as it is, so it's the writer's job to 1) have something to say and 2) say it clearly. Maybe this is why he wasn't taught at his billion-dollar alma mater Cornell when I was a student there in the late 1980's-- he makes professors feel obsolete. That, to me, is a good thing. After all, one of the myths about American life which Vonnegut lays bare is that of the importance of higher education-- it's not so much about learning as it is about making connections.

Not that connections are bad per se, but one must be able to distinguish meaningful associations based on common goals and interests (karasses) from trumped-up distinctions devised to create an us-vs.-them mentality (granfalloons). Vonnegut introduces the terms karass and granfalloon in Cat's Cradle, a satiric novel whose observation of social structures was so keen it fulfilled Vonnegut's anthropology dissertation requirement long after the author had abandoned his studies at the University of Chicago. Instead of going off to study "primitive" cultures, Vonnegut brings his curiosity and talent to bear on the society in which he lives --America in the latter half of the 20th century-- and exposes its flaws, foibles, and frailties with a wit and insight which is inevitably compared to his hero's, Mark Twain.

Criticized by his own father for never having created a villain, Vonnegut's characters are motivated by either lonesomeness, boredom ("What are people for?"), or biological and environmental factors beyond their control. But an at least partial corrective for all three conditions exists--artificial extended families analogous to the tribal cultures of his anthropolgy studies and the real-life extended family of Vonnegut's idyllic Indiana boyhood. The theme gains prominence with each subsequent book, most overtly explained in the flawed Slapstick and most eloquently summarized in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "We're here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."

Vonnegut's ideas are so humane, his words so compassionate, his advice so sensible, that his readers feel a strong connection to the man, and, by extension, to one another. Perhaps his greatest contribution has been the unwitting creation of a global family of admirers who share and recognize in one another the desire to exhibit that most uncommon of human traits--common decency.

In His Own Words
Vonnegut calls these collections of letters, essays, speeches, and autobiographical sketches blivits, a word he defines as "two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag."
This is where you can find numerous commencement speeches, book reviews, and meditations on the creative process and the importance of family, not to mention the lyrics to his favorite country song.
The most revealing of the batch is Conversations..., a compilation of 20 years' worth of interviews from various sources.

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