I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms.
After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss.
I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for.
Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug.
What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me?
I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion.
This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”.
Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.”
The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters.
When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes.
Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then.
Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life.
At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle.
In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to
think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait…
To find out for certain what my wampeter was…
And who was in my karass…
And all the good things our karass did for you.
I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true.
Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul.
In the early ‘70s, Kurt Vonnegut helped produce a TV adaptation of his work, Between Time and Timbuktu, that aired on the public TV program NET Playhouse. The adaptation brought together elements from several of the author’s most famous works, including Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle and “Harrison Bergeron.” At Black Balloon Publishing’s blog, you can find YouTube clips and links to the printed script. (Related: our own Lydia Kiesling read Vonnegut’s Letters.) (h/t The Rumpus)
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: New, Used, or Antequarian?Edan: My preference is for new books – to me, reading someone’s yellowed copy of Pride and Prejudice feels too much like wearing that same someone’s stinky sneakers. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can never drum up the same kind of lust for the used as I can for the new. This might have its origins in childhood trips to Children’s Book World in West L.A. where I went to attack L.M. Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, or to get the latest installment of the Babysitter’s Club series. My appreciation for the new became part of my job at Book Soup; there I spent a lot of time stacking smooth hardcovers and shiny paperbacks, and oohing and aahing over what the receiver unpacked next. Even now I can’t help but fix displays at my local bookstore – it’s just too pleasurable to handle all those new novels.For me, buying a new book is an event, and after a day or two of reading, I write my name, and the month and year, on the book’s inside cover. I rarely get rid of the new books I buy; the connection is too deep. I love starting with a stiff and shy paperback, and ending with something dog eared, scribbled on, and creased – in that process, the book becomes read, and becomes mine.Andrew: I know I’ve been in a good used-book shop if, upon leaving, I begin to muse what it would be like to quit my job, buy the shop in question, and become Andrew Saikali, bookseller, Esq. Then reality usually sets in, and I forget this fanciful notion.Second-hand book shops are like an extended version of my den – they are what it would resemble if I had the resources. So, for me, because of the experience of buying used, coupled with the cost-savings, second-hand books trump even the shiniest new books. That said, on occasion I’ll comb the city looking for a just-released title, price be damned. (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles was a case in point.)While I admire antiquarian books – taunting me as they do from their snobby little perch behind the glass, behind lock and key – I’ve always resisted the temptation to splurge. However, if anyone wishes to initiate me into the rarified world behind that glass, my birthday is in April. You’ve missed this year’s, but you can begin to think about next year’s. I also like imported wine and fine chocolate.Kevin: I don’t know if the problem is with me or with used book stores, but either way, the relationship always ends in disappointment. I want to like used book stores, to see them as little pockets of virtue in the miles and miles of new, shiny waste sold by other stores on the block. I want to admire the shy, balding hippy who runs the place, and his quiet young apprentice, who volunteers five hours a week for unlimited free trade-ins. In my first year in every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve made the rounds of the local used bookstores. Usually my initial trip is also my last. My latest such dalliance was with two places down in Old City Philadelphia. Not wanting to leaving empty handed, I walked out with a frayed history of colonialism in Latin America and a collection of Vonnegut short stories. Both are sitting just where I left them when I came home, in a stack at the foot of my bed. One problem with big chain bookstores, I suppose, is the way they press books upon you, with table displays and prominent shelf placements. It’s hard to discern value that way, too, as hard as it is to determine the same among the undifferentiated clutter of most used book stores. That’s why, all in all, I prefer hand-me-downs from friends, and the library.Emre: I find it hard not to get new, crisp books. There is a certain delight in slowly molding a novel’s spine until the covers bend for a comfortable one-hand-hold read. And, they smell good. That said, I prefer used books when reading not-so-recently published works. I appreciate three qualities in used books: artwork and fonts from a different era, notes by various previous owners (I enjoy the conversation regardless of whether we agree or not) and the randomness that often characterizes how I get them. So far they have – through friends, hole-in-the-wall bookstores or sidewalk vendors – introduced me to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. As for collecting and caring for vintage books, I got nothing. Some sort of book karma seems to be recycling everything that passes through my hands.Emily: Although I love a good rare books room (nothing like the feel of vellum and a little paleographic challenge), I don’t own anything much that’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I do own a first edition of Mary McCarthy’s first novel The Company She Keeps, but that wasn’t more than fifty dollars. No, the most expensive book in my collection, coming in at a whopping $92 plus shipping, is (try to contain your jealousy) the out-of-print Life, Letters, and Philosophical Regime of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand (1900). It’s a discharged copy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and falling apart in spite of the fact that quite a few of the pages were uncut when it arrived. This purchase was practical: The Stanford library didn’t have a copy and since I didn’t make it to see the manuscript version of Shaftesbury’s regimen at the National Archives in London, this was the most expedient solution. In general, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to books. My most recent acquisition, for example, was a copy of La Princesse de Cleve (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, considered by some literary historians to be the first European novel. And that was free! (The only treasure in box of books left outside a used bookstore after hours.) Probably my best “find” after a copy of Colley Cibber’s classic (and then, perhaps still, out of print) early eighteenth century play The Careless Husband that I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope.Max: All three types of books speak to me. I blossomed as a reader thanks to used bookstores in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, where the books were cheap and I could easily compile the oeuvre of whoever I was obsessed with at the moment, Vonnegut or John Irving or Hemingway. But I’ve soured a bit on used books because too often used bookstores are hobbies of hoarders and impossible to navigate, or they are too polished and expensive. I will always love, however, the pocket paperbacks of the 50s to the 70s. I love the cover designs across those eras and I love being able to have a book with me, quite literally in my pocket, without having to schlep it awkwardly under my arm.But new books are in most cases better. I find them incredibly tempting with their shiny covers and crisp pages, though, as noted, I do get a bit weary of lugging hardcovers. As for the antiquarian books, I sometimes fancy the idea that it might be fun to be a book collector, but I know I do not have the temperament for it. I cannot see books as objects in that way, and, with the few books of value I have accumulated over the years, I fret about what I am supposed to do with them… sell them? Lock them in a safe? They sit in a box so that they won’t get wrecked. And that’s no place for books to be.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: Used, new, or antiquarian?
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)