Kurt Vonnegut, the beloved science fiction novelist, wrote amazingly creative and thought-provoking page-turners. He was a solid advocate of humanism. Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. It affirms the dignity of each human being to be good, not because religion told them to, but just because they can, for goodness sake. While he is generally remembered for his outspokenness regarding art, political and moral issues, many of his novels teach valuable life lessons containing quotable advice on how to live well.
What kind of knowledge is encased within a Vonnegut novel?
Kindness is important.
His books “beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.” In one of his more formal writing, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” a 1965 novel about a philanthropic organization gone wrong Vonnegut famously writes:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Enrich your life by reading.
In “Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage,” he wrote:
“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”
His profound explanation on why reading is good for you is absolutely wonderful. The idea that my mind is united with the mind of the writer makes so much sense and it is such a beautiful concept.
Art possesses therapeutic properties.
He himself created the felt tip pen illustrations for both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions,” and even the cover art for a Phish album. He even wrote a novel called “Bluebeard” about the life of an aging abstract expressionist painter and the importance of meaningful art. In his bestselling essay collection, “A Man Without a Country,” Vonnegut states:
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Patience is power.
In one of his writings Vonnegut preached:
“Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQ’s as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”
Turn a tragedy into something humorous.
One of the things he is famous for is his dark sense of humor. Vonnegut uses humor to discuss subjects that, under normal circumstances, would make someone cry. He would provoke thought about travesties in American culture by being witty.
What can we learn from Vonnegut himself?
Stand up for what you believe in!
There was an instance at a school when his book was banned and even burned. In retaliation, Vonnegut wrote a letter to the school board stating:
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life.”
Laughter is the cure-all remedy.
According to Vonnegut, laughter is a way for people to cope with discomfort or sadness. He says:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning to do afterward.”
Unplug from electronics from time to time.
His opinions on modern technology and such forms of communication is that they can be useful but also have the potential to create feelings of isolation. What he means by this can be understood through an anecdote he offered PBS during an interview which illustrates his thoughts on the allure and instant gratification of things like e-mail and online shopping. In response to his wife asking why he doesn’t order envelopes in bulk online, he said:
“I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up… The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.”
Value your life and the life of others.
To him, life was the most precious gift of all. It pained him to see it constantly wasted around the world. One of the moments that most defined who he is was the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden as a prisoner of war. He had to bear witness to countless civilians murdered, towns destroyed and all because of greed and human nature. This experience is what inspired his novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
Everything happens for a reason.
The evidence that Vonnegut believed in fate lies in his characters. They would function through a stream of consciousness. This stream was the characters journey of life so to speak. It would bring the reader to different points in the narrator’s life that the narrator will not, and cannot, change. This was the flow of the story. The same holds true for people (characters) in real life. The path we follow is destined and everything that happens does so simply because it must.
He used personal experiences to spread a message.
Since he wanted to inspire people to change the world, he wrote about the things he despised. Since he wanted people to fulfill their own destiny and influence the world, he wrote about his life and how he came to be. In other words, he was giving his readers first-hand examples of situations to guide them in the right direction.
Inspire a positive change in the world.
Vonnegut ultimately hoped to inspire his readers to change the world, get answers to their questions, and find fulfillment in their lives and accomplishments. A group of school children wrote him a letter one day and he wrote them in reply:
“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
This short animated video on why we should read Kurt Vonnegut is quite brilliant and definitely worth watching…even if you’re never going to read one of his books: