My students have never heard of Kurt Vonnegut.
How can this be? Has it really been that long since Vonnegut was writing? Have university students changed so much?
I thought reading Vonnegut was compulsory for university students. You signed up for classes, figured out where your dorm was, and were handed a box containing a can of condensed soup, a mug, a small selection of personal care products from various corporations who wanted your future business (the precise nature of which varied depending on the social views of the university president), the phone numbers for various emergency and semi-emergency agencies within the university hierarchy, and a small selection of Vonnegut novels that, at minimum, included Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five. At least that’s how it was back when I was in college.
You can get off my lawn now.
Apparently this is no longer the case. What do modern students do instead?
It can’t be sex or alcohol, since I seem to recall a lot of that going around when I was in college – that was the whole purpose behind several of those phone numbers, after all, not to mention most of the personal care products – and we still managed to find time to read Vonnegut novels. Not at the same time, granted. The former would have involved way too many physical contortions, and the latter would just not have been good for anyone’s mental health. But in serial, yes, and it was true that reading those novels was not a bad way to seek either of those other things.
Perhaps today’s students have moved on to Facebook.
That would be a poor bargain, though, giving up Cat’s Cradle for status updates about vacations and misattributed quotes plastered onto photos of kittens. I’m sure Vonnegut would have had something to say about that, had he lived.
I read my first Vonnegut novel not long after graduating high school. I had a summer job working as a general all-around assistant at a Lutheran deaconess community – a kind of convent for elderly Lutheran women, as near as I ever figured out. Mostly this involved answering the phones (the place had a genuine switchboard with heavy wires you had to patch into the correct hole on the board in order to transfer a call), getting the long tables set up for meals (they were very tolerant people in all matters not having to do with silverware), and chatting with the only one of the sisters who was under the age of 70 (to this day the concept of a Platonic Ideal makes me laugh, and I blame her for this). None of this took up much time, though some of the conversations were, as noted, a lot of fun.
I had a lot of free time at that job. There was only one meal per shift, usually. Not many people ever called. And the one sister was usually busy with other things around the place, which is what happens when you’re the only resident who can bend over without falling down. Some of that time I spent watching Live-Aid on a six-inch black and white screen television, which might explain why my main impression of that concert was that it was kind of tinny. Most of the time, however, I read.
I had gotten the job because a friend of mine recommended me for it. She already worked there – how she got the job I never did find out – and they needed someone else. She knew me pretty well, and one day as she was leaving and I was arriving she handed me Slapstick and said, “Read this. You’ll like it.”
And I did.
I spent the next several years seeking out Vonnegut novels in used book stores all over Philadelphia, and buying them new when that strategy didn’t pan out. I read them all, everything the man ever published.
They were wonderful.
I even saw him speak once, in Pittsburgh. He may well have been drunk. Or simply tired. Or maybe that’s just how he was normally. I don’t know, and having nothing to compare that experience to, I suppose I’ll never know. He didn’t come out afterward to sign books though, as we had been told he would.
I didn’t care. It was worth it to hear what he had to say.
Vonnegut was a pessimist. He’d seen too much to be anything else. He was a German-American growing up after WWI, an era when the reflexive Nativism of the US had largely destroyed a culture that had rivaled Anglo-American culture in importance and influence. His family lost almost everything in the Great Depression. He was an infantryman in WWII and was captured by the Nazis. He survived the firebombing of Dresden, one of the few people who did. That experience became Slaughterhouse Five.
That’s how I know my students don’t read him. We covered Dresden in class today, and I asked if they had read Slaughterhouse Five. It might as well have been the Civil War as far as my students were concerned, and I might as well have asked them about Ambrose Bierce.
We need pessimists. We need to remember that the Happy All The Damned Time culture of modern America is unbalanced, incomplete, and a poor way to prepare for reality.
We need someone to remind us to be kind, to be suspicious of ideology, to love humanity because of its flaws, not despite them.
I told my students to go out and read some Vonnegut books, not because they were assigned but because they’d enjoy them and might get something out of them. I hope they do.