Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For a very long time, I hated Kurt Vonnegut. More specifically, I hated Slaughterhouse-Five. It was assigned to me during my first or second year of high school, so I was still doing debate and still in the throes of what I like to call “The Wombat Years”—a bad period spanning most of my adolescence that featured bangs, rabid femmephobia, and constant, quiet anger. That last one had a hair trigger, and Vonnegut tripped it by, in my memory, calling Billy’s daughter “a bitch”. (This may or may not actually happen in the book.) I finished the book, since it was for school, but I scowled more than usual all the way. I am no longer a wombat, but that loathing remained. I did know I’d have to revisit this eventually for Reading by Ear—I just didn’t read that much as a kid, y’all!—but I was expecting the worst. And all I’ve got to say is praise and hallejulah, the Wombat Years are behind us.
I am paraphrasing from a friend’s Facebook wall her question:
“How would a teen-age boy who is going to work with his hands ever use Literature of England in his work?”
The age-old “How am I going to use this in real life?” question. How would you answer it?
How else are you going to learn about the world and humanity outside of your own life? Okay, that’s more of a spiritual answer, but I’ve always had a difficult time understanding people who dread reading. I mean, you get to live extra lives! (This is mostly because they’ve been reading the wrong books for themselves.) But that’s not work-related and not what the question is about.
The critical study of texts is still important to everyone—how else are you going to evaluate the information in your life, bookish or not, except by critical analysis? A text isn’t just a book (that would be a codex!); it’s any message someone crafts for public exposure. You don’t assume everything you hear or read is true, obviously, until you’ve checked it yourself. (At least, I hope you do.) Critical analysis—not just of the content but of the context of a piece of literature—helps the reader understand where the author is coming from, why they’re writing what they’re writing, and pick out from their message the things that are important to their lives and discarding what is not. You can imagine how this might be useful for anyone who is politically active, or even anyone is exposed to modern media. So while the study of fiction might not apply directly to a carpenter’s work, it’s still useful to her as a citizen and as a human being in the modern world. Work isn’t your only responsibility.
(Also? Reading is fun. Books are a medium like any other; you have to find the books that you like, not the books that are considered “classics”—always a problematic term—by old white guys. I mean, I hate Kurt Vonnegut and they still let me be an English major.)
Name a book or author that you truly wanted to love but left you disappointed. (And, of course, explain why.)
My God, there’s so many!
Well, books first, I guess. I quite wanted to enjoy Robin McKinley’s Beauty, because I enjoyed Sunshine so much, but it fell absolutely flat for me. All the praise for Maus made me want to read it and enjoy it, but the main conceit ruined it for me. I even wanted to like The Historian, my go-to example of a bloated novel where the author is showing off research more than story.
As far as authors go, Gregory Maguire sprung to mind. I love him for Wicked and Son of a Witch, but his other works are just terrible. I have no idea what happened there. And I don’t recall ever wanting to love Kurt Vonnegut, but reading Slaughterhouse-Five in high school has put me off him forever.
Basically, whenever a book fails me, I’m disappointed. In a perfect universe, every book I read would be good. (Also, there would be less romance in YA books with female heroines.) But sometimes that disappointment makes for writing fun reviews, and it’s also instructional–a big “DON’T DO THIS” sign for writers. No matter how disappointed you are, it’s still useful. (I still won’t shut up about The Historian!)