Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.

Honest Doubt

Kurt Vonnegut was never required reading in my high school English classes. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in seminary, and picked up a few of his other titles in the dearly departed Boston Book Annex. A couple of these used books have been waiting patiently over the decades, and so I selected Cat’s Cradle to be perhaps the last book I finish this year. As far as I can recollect, the Vonnegut books I purchased while in seminary had no particular order or reason. A friend had recommended The Sirens of Titan, but Cat’s Cradle was what would now be called an “impulse buy.” Reading it, I rediscovered why I like Vonnegut so much. I also found out the book revolves around religion.

Regular readers know that I tend to find religious themes in secular books. It’s partially human radar and partially an unfortunate occupational hazard. Occasionally I’m pretty certain the author had no intention of including or developing the themes I discover. Cat’s Cradle, however, places religion front and center. The story involves a journalist on the trail of one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He unintentionally coverts to Bokononism, a religion made up by a castaway on the island of San Lorenzo. The religion, based on the teachings of a still-living sage, revolves around the idea that all its sacred writings are lies. Think about that a moment.

Lies, in which we’ve all had a crash course since January, are among the most insidious of human accomplishments. We value and crave the truth. We all believe that we believe it, but there are differing opinions as to what it is. Some opinions are backed with evidence, and others with flimsy fabrications. To declare a religion based on lies is, of course, to undermine the whole enterprise. Vonnegut was a noted iconoclast, but there’s a brilliance in declaring a religion to be knowingly based on falsehood. In fact, we’re seeing it happen before our very eyes. The religion formerly known as Christianity, once upon a time, took into account the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospels. Modern Christianity—Evangelicalism—has completely thrown Jesus out of the equation in all but name. Branding, after all, is everything. This modern faux religion suggests hating your fellow creature, taking advantage of the poor, and believing falsehoods to be the most sincere of truths. It’s alive and released on the earth even now. And it is far more scary than even ice-nine.

Ban This

It should be a scarlet letter week. In honor of Banned Book Week, I’ve started to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Somehow I made it through high school and college without having been exposed to Vonnegut. A friend started me reading his works when I was about ready to start my Master’s degree, and I’ve always enjoyed coming back to him. When my daughter asked me why Slaughterhouse-Five had been placed on The List, I honestly couldn’t guess. Banning books, of course, is a scheme chiefly intended to keep children unexposed to ideas that adults find uncomfortable. We can’t go around telling other adults what not to think (although that hasn’t stopped many a religious tradition from trying), so some individuals figure that we can protect our unthinking young by putting in the corner literature that asks awkward questions. More radical conservative elements suggest destroying them. These are the true grapes of wrath.

Ideas can be wonderfully dangerous things. We now face a brave new world of internet access where ideas float lightly on the web and unless we watch our children constantly, we can’t control what they might see. Ideas as traditionally expressed in literature go through a tremendously long and convoluted birth process. We even use the language of conception to describe how they begin in one’s mind. Ideas implant, gestate, and grow. For the writer this might represent weeks, months, or years of writing, erasing, re-writing, and yes, parenting the idea. The written book has to meet the approval of publishers and only after yet another editing process are they pronounced fit to see the light of day as books. Having passed through many hands, many heads, such ideas become part of their culture. If we find them objectionable, well, isn’t that just part of life? Perhaps that is the largest message to be gleaned from the world of books: no one will be pleased with them all. Even the diary of a young girl will raise alarm.

Some of the finest literature to escape human minds has been challenged or banned. Ironically, in the land of the free and the home of the brave fear of books runs at a fever pitch seldom encountered elsewhere. Afraid of mice and men. What has made this country such a wonderful experiment—the embracing of diversity—has somehow morphed into a neighborhood where nobody feels safe if there are objectionable words on the bookshelf. Ironically Ray Bradbury’s critique of banning books, Fahrenheit 451, is itself a banned book. What most proponents of stopping literature probably don’t realize is that according to OCLC, the source for library data, the most banned book of all time is the Bible. To be honest, those who’ve read it know that it has sex and violence and many other adult situations. In the original languages there are even “swears.” Maybe it’s time people just grew up. The best way to accomplish that is to read a book. Hey, it’s a jungle out there.