Happy birthday, Kurt

Booth Tarkington. Theodore Dreiser. John Green (a transplant). Ben Cotton. Indiana has a tradition of great authors. But none of them can compare to Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, who would have turned 100 years old today.

My dad first introduced me to Vonnegut’s work when I was in sixth grade or so. He lent me his copy of God Bless You, Mister Rosewater when I went on a road trip with some extended family. I’d never read anything like it. It mixed talk of pubic hair with phrases like “offensive effluvium.”

The first story we read in the Junior Great Books after-school program in seventh grade was the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I loved that story. The rest of the year was a disappointment.

But soon I was reading other Vonnegut books. Breakfast of Champions inspired several projects for the intro to drama class I took my sophomore year. The first assignment was to make a poster for a play — real or imagined. I decided to make a poster for “Cornflakes”, a play where a man went crazy and began eating nothing but corn flakes. For a later assignment, I had to design a set. I kept using “Cornflakes” and designed the slide room from the play: the room where the main character slid down a slide into a giant bowl of corn flakes. My drama class was at the end of the day, so I had eaten many of the corn flakes by the time class rolled around. I still got a decent grade. Later on, I began writing the short story when I had down time in classes. It is mercifully lost to time, but as far as I know, it remains the only short story based on a set based on a poster.

Breakfast of Champions has been my favorite since I first read it, and not just because Dwayne Hoover has some absolutely bonkers lines. It wrestles with questions of existence in a way that’s both profound and absurd. In the 25 years that I’ve read and re-read it, something else catches me every time.

Mother Night is the same way. When I was younger, it was a tragic tale of a hero who lost everything in order to anonymously serve his country. Now, it’s a cautionary tale. Whenever I’m tempted to pretend to be a terrible person on the Internet for some lulz, I stop and think “we are what we pretend to be.” Howard W. Campbell was absolutely a good guy to a younger me. Older me isn’t so sure.

Of course, I’ve ready many other Vonnegut books, and books about Vonnegut. I even got to help with a time capsule and a literary landmark designation at the Vonnegut Museum earlier this year. I don’t have time to go into all that I know, or think, or wish I knew about Kurt Vonnegut. But it’s clear that his work has had a profound effect on me. I often catch myself trying to be witty in a way that is, at best, a poor imitation of Vonnegut’s style.

When my sisters and I were coming up with the eulogy I was to read at Dad’s funeral, we knew it had to include a Vonnegut reference. I’m glad that a love of these books (even though I think much more highly of Slapstick than Dad did) was a bond that my father and I could share. And when my kids are a little bit older, I hope that I can share that with them. I hope Kurt would have liked that.

ebooks versus dead tree books

For a long time, I avoided ebooks. Partly because reading on a monitor was just weird to me. Partly because I really like the feel and smell of physical books. Partly because having a dead tree version of manuals was important in outages. Partly because I don’t have to worry about DRM. Partly because I enjoy the look of a shelf full of books.

It wasn’t until my oldest child was born that I started getting into ebooks. The aspect ratio of my phone or tablet made long-form reading a lot easier than the “sideways” monitor setup. The real selling point was that the backlight was a lot easier to manage than a small reading light, particularly when trying to get a resistant child to fall asleep.

Still, my consumption habits are better suited for physical books. One of my favorite ways to get books is to peruse the discard shelf at the local library. I’ll pick up books that seem interesting. If they are, I’ll keep them. If they’re not, I’ll send them off to Goodwill. Digital media doesn’t (yet) have a similar paradigm.

On the one hand, that makes sense. Digital copies are cheap to the point of being basically free. Who needs to discard an ebook when you can just copy it? Of course, authors and publishers argue that such a model completely eliminates the commercial value of their work. I am very sympathetic to that, although there’s certainly room to make copyright law more consumer-friendly.

Slowly, I’ve begun adding to my ebook collection, generally when O’Reilly has their Day Against DRM sale. I’ll still prefer physical books for the most part, if nothing else because it’s easier to get them autographed. A conversion to more ebooks is probably inevitable, particularly once publishers realize that ebooks are cheaper to produce and adjust the prices downward accordingly.