I’m reading real books again this summer, for a change. There’s a sort of weight and permanence to the printed word, on real paper, especially when bound in a hard cover. Maybe I’m a romantic, an old-fashioned old coot, but books still matter to me –in this age of dying newspaper conglomerates, bad novelizations of bad movies, and blogs (including this one) that seem outdated within mere minutes, as we move on to the next topic or political fetish.
True to form, I’ve chosen some classic books and highly “literary” authors for my current reading binge: To Kill a Mockingbird. (O Harper Lee, Where Art Thou?) . Americana, a recent John Updike poetry collection. Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott, which is my current book (I’ve slowed down, to savor it, not wanting to be done yet). And A Man Without a Country, a terrific, short, memoir-ish, doodle-filled, social critique sort of thing by the late great Kurt Vonnegut, the last book he ever put out. You might say it was his “parting shot”.
Kurt is someone I need to learn more about, partly because I am hoping to include him as a key minor character in my slowly-evolving Cape Cod novel (he lived there in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the time period of my novel). He’s the perfect mentor for one of the teenage kids in my disgruntled Eisenhower-era family, the McKittredges.
Vonnegut always lived the tough questions and contradictions: he was a WWII vet who became a pacifist, a scientist/anthropologist in disguise as a novelist, a pragmatic Midwesterner in spirit right up to the end (he was from Indianapolis) even while living in New York, a great American who knew that patriotism need not be reduced to jingoistic sayings and blind acceptance of stupid policies, an unapologetic Socialist sympathizer (but only the old 1930s brand of idealistic socialism), and one of the funniest mo-fos ever to walk the planet.
And it was a planet he loved dearly, too. A Man Without a Country has some of the best rhetorical arguments against fossil fuels that I’ve read anywhere. Though he’s cynical, too (or realistic, depending on your outlook), and doubts we can actually save the planet, one which he ruefully reminds us it took a mere hundred years for us to ruin.
Here’s a few choice quotes from Man Without a Country:
“Humor is an almost physiological response to fear. Freud said that humor is a response to frustration – one of several… I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy. There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all they time. They could be so easily killed.”
“How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? …But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings… ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
“Speaking of plunging into war, do you know why I think George W. Bush is so pissed off at Arabs? They brought us algebra. Also the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which Europeans had never had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals.”
“There are two sorts of artists… one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself… what you resond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
This last quote was actually Kurt quoting another friend of his, Saul Steinberg, who he called the wisest person he ever met. For me, Kurt may be the wisest man I never met, except through his books. His novels take a long view of human history, and they expose our species as the beautiful fools we’re often too afraid to admit we are. He can speak eloquently about science and deny the existence of heaven in one breath, and then by the end of that same paragraph express more genuine gratitude and appreciation for the life and words of Jesus than most Christians I know. In other words, he was wise: he knew enough to admit that he really only knew very little, with any certainty. As an avowed skeptic and misanthrope, he didn’t have what one could call “faith” — in God, in politics, in humans, in anything, actually. But he had the guts to keep asking the tough questions, to stay focused and informed, and to express his brilliant, hilarious opinions, right up to the end (which was in April of 2007).
I can only hope to be so lucky, or even half as gifted.