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The value of Kurt Vonnegut

The life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. saw death, the destruction of an entire city during wartime and immense success as a writer.
Vonnegut’s experiences as a prisoner of war in the city of Dresden during the second World War changed his writing from the comically pacifist tone he had used in his college newspaper days to the morbidly satirical voice showcased so prominently in his most famous work, “Slaughterhouse Five”. In a much more gruesome, but still significant to any college student on the edge of mental ruin, sense Vonnegut comments on his time in Dresden after the Allies bombed it into the ground: “How nice — to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”
Although many of today’s college students stopped reading books for fun with the Junie B. Jones series in 2004, Vonnegut’s work holds the potential for change. His writing holds incredible value for students force-fed monotonous classics, including but not limited to Gulliver’s Travels, Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen. Not to assert that these books have no value- every book holds something for someone out there. However, when every book requiring analysis follows the life of an out-of-touch, rich white man, books seem to repeat themselves.
While many of Vonnegut’s novels are categorized as science fiction, he also uses fantasy worlds to reflect what he feels is wrong with his life and the world. Instead of droning on about a working class and upper class, Vonnegut instead uses the juxtaposition between aliens on the planet Tralfamadore and soldiers in work camps to place these same struggles into perspective.
So besides writing brilliantly, what makes Vonnegut’s work so worth a student’s time that is already stretched thinner than a sandwich slice of cheese? The humor. His jokes transcend generational and cultural differences. For example, in his autobiographical work “A Man without a Country” the opening page has only one quote written in Vonnegut’s own handwriting: “There is no reason good can’t triumph over evil, if only angels will get organized along the lines of the mafia.”
The title of this book displays Vonnegut’s confusion and discomfort as an American citizen of German descent with no true cultural roots. This is in part due to his parents’ fear of Americans after World War I.
Born in November of 1922, Vonnegut entered a world where fear of Germans was commonplace. To avoid discrimination and hate crimes, Vonnegut’s parents quickly abandoned their German traditions and eagerly displayed their American patriotism. After enduring a childhood with no real culture to call his own, Vonnegut attempted to make meaning out of his life at Cornell University. The author made clear his pacifist views in The Cornell Daily Sun, and used student deferment to avoid serving in World War II. However, after being placed on academic probation due to poor grades and excessive sarcasm in the school newspaper, he decided to preemptively drop out.
A man truly dedicated to jumping the gun, Vonnegut also enlisted in the army before he could get drafted and was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to train.
Through a long series of events, he ended up a POW after the Battle of the Bulge and was sent to Dresden to work in a factory making malt syrup for pregnant women. His writing draws on his experiences as both a POW as well as his experience sitting in a slaughterhouse three levels below ground during the firebombing of Dresden. While he survived thanks to the slaughterhouse basement, the citizens of Dresden were not so lucky. The Germans did not think that the city would ever get bombed because it was a civilian center with no real value to the war besides hospitals. Hence, there were very few bomb shelters. The Allies bombed the bejeezus out of it regardless and Vonnegut just endured. For the next few months, he was forced to pick through the rubble, rake together bodies and rob corpses in order to obtain food and basic necessities.
For obvious reasons, Vonnegut’s work is cynical and continuously points to needless wastes in society. In looking for a starting point, perhaps pick up “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.” It is short, easy to read, and holds many punchy one-liners. After that, follow this general guide for the best Vonnegut reading experience. If you are looking for:
A book filled with cynicism about capitalism; pick “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”
A chance to learn about politics and war, choose “Slaughterhouse Five.”
A satirical take on religion and spirituality; pick up “Sirens of Titan” or “Cat’s Cradle.”
And finally a reflection on Vonnegut’s many experiences with the end of the world; read “Armageddon in Retrospect.”
So, if nothing else, Vonnegut can give inspiration to a kitschy literary tattoo like: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” (from “Slaughterhouse Five”). At best, Vonnegut can become the score to an entire college career where mental health slowly deteriorates, every romantic incident feels like the end of the world and the future looms over us like the jaws of a Venus flytrap about to snap shut.

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