The final—at least for now—book of my life that I wanted to share is one that helped to redirect the course of my education and career. (For my first two posts about the books of my life, look here and here.)
While I’ve loved reading my whole life, I did not enjoy my English classes much of the time. I resented having to waste my time, as I thought of it then, reading those dreary books assigned to me. I longed for tales of adventure and conquest, and I couldn’t have cared less about the mundane inner struggles of boarding school boys or whatever it was that was thrust upon me at the time. Maybe if Steinbeck had complicated the plight of migrant workers by adding a dragon invasion to the equation, or if Shakespeare had explored the twisted ambition of the King of Gondor, I could have found myself more in these stories. I knew what I liked and already read voraciously; what more could English classes have to offer?
This bias against literary fiction began to unravel starting my tenth grade year and continued to erode my junior year. But it wasn’t until my senior year in AP Literature that it was finally dislodged completely. The book that proved its undoing was Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
A blend of sci-fi and realistic fiction, the novel depicts the haphazard journey of Billy Pilgrim, who flits in an out of time as he struggles through one trauma and then another. He is unstuck in time, as the first line of his story tells us, and so he cannot control his time travel, forcing us to jump with him. And so we jump through his tragedies: his capture by Germans during WWII, the firebombing of Dresden, his depressed middle-aged years as an optometrist, and, of course, his abduction by aliens. For Billy is taken to the planet Tralfamadore to live in a zoo there, and eventually is taught to view time as an expanse without end—an expanse in which each moment is always happening.
I love this novel for its dark humor; for Vonnegut’s delightful curmudgeon of an alter ego, Kilgore Trout (whose novel summaries are hysterical); for the absurd sadness of Billy Pilgrim, a listless plaything of enormous forces. But most of all I love the novel for how richly it rewards close reading. At first, I accepted his tales of aliens and time travel, but by the end I realized that these fantasies were merely the concoction of his PTSD-affected mind. Unable to cope with his trauma, he creates a new philosophy of time, one that allows him to accept tragedies such as the war because everyone who died is still alive in another moment, and always will be. I hadn’t had to delve that deeply into a text before, but in doing so I felt the forceful call of literature on my life.
Slaughterhouse Five changed my life. As a result of this experience and the ones that followed, I majored in English in college. I then went on to get a master’s, and now I teach high school English, getting to share with a new generation of readers the joys of this very novel. And while I don’t write literary fiction, this novel unlocked for me a fuller appreciation for what stories can be—an appreciation that still informs my writing.
Towards the end of the novel, Billy finds his way onto an all-night radio show in order to spread his gospel of time travel, but the other panelists are there to debate the function of the novel in modern society. One critic says, “To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls,” while another states bluntly, “To describe blow-jobs artistically.” Yet another says, “To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant.”
These answers range from the sardonic to the cynical, in typical Vonnegut fashion, but perhaps the answer to that question lies in Billy’s off-topic response about flying saucers and time travel and so on. These were the necessary fictions in his life that helped him function in such a hostile universe. Perhaps literature functions in a similar way. While my outlook on the world is not quite as dark as Vonnegut’s, I still find that I, like Billy, use fictions to better understand myself and the world around me. It is through the touchstone of literature that I’ve stepped more fully outside of my own perspective, extending the range and depth of my empathy. Perhaps it’s as a dear writer friend of mine once said: “The stories will save us.”