“Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.” (Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut)
There’s a great Doonesbury strip from late 1977. Mike and Zonker have moved into a friend’s dorm room to house-sit while he is gone for two weeks. They start to get excited about being in a dorm again and Zonker says “You put up the Hobbit posters! I’ll start making the cinder block bookcase!” and Mike replies, “In a minute! I want to unwind with a little Vonnegut first.” (a reprint of the strip can be found in “Any Grooming Hints for Your Fans, Rollie?”)
This seems to pretty well sum up Kurt Vonnegut. He’s one of the great writers of the 20th century, a master of meta-fiction, of black humor, of moral issues. He is the quintessential writer to be discovered in college. It’s simply not the same if you don’t read him before you graduate. Of course, he ages better than many beloved college classics. His Cat’s Cradle has already appeared in my top 100 and Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five will also be making appearances, though not for a while.
He is also one of the authors whom I avidly collect in First Edition. So, to kick off my first piece on my For Love of Books series, I am going to be discussing Vonnegut and his books.
First I will say that my For Love of Books series is essentially a giant f-you to Amazon and its Kindle. These posts are about the love of actual books, the joy of collecting books, of owning books, of reading them, of having them. It will talk about various series of books, various collections we own and the sheer joy of physical books. Some of them will focus on specific authors, while some of them will be about specific types of books.
When it comes to Vonnegut, the first thing is the First Editions. First Editions of any author can be quite valuable, but since First Editions are nearly always hardcover, they also can take up a lot of room. There aren’t a whole lot of authors who I avid collect First Editions of (Vonnegut, Roth, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie).
” ‘All people are insane,’ he said. ‘They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.’ ” (Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut)
The Vonnegut Firsts are those books on the top shelf (except Fates Worse than Death). From 1974 forward, I have every Vonnegut First Edition with the exception of Slapstick. The ones prior to 1974 are harder to find and more expensive to buy. He hadn’t achieved his peak popularity yet and the print runs weren’t as large. Most of the Firsts are in pretty good shape, though some of the dust jackets have tears. We also have a signed Advanced Reader of Timequake, which is really the star of our collection. The other books that might not look familiar are a bibliography of Vonnegut’s work, which isn’t all that helpful since it was printed in 1974 and a Vonnegut Encyclopedia, which is actually pretty pricey.
There are a few books which aren’t First Editions and also aren’t the Dell paperbacks that I will discuss in a minute. Whether because of his contract or because of timing (most likely a combination of both), none of the later Vonnegut books are available in Dell paperbacks, so we have mass market copies of both Hocus Pocus and Timequake that don’t match the rest. We also have trade copies of Breakfast of Champions, Between Time and Timbuktu (his teleplay) and Fates Worse Than Death. We also have Avon paperbacks of both Player Piano and Mother Night. There are Avon copies of many of the older books but the reason we have these two is that it is the only copy we have of Player Piano and because Veronica really likes the cover of Mother Night (it had been hers) and wanted to keep it.
At some point, Dell started releasing mass market copies of all of his books. At first they all solid colors around the edges and the spine, with a drawing on the front. But at some point, in the early eighties, they started replacing these with a specific design. There would be a large V on the front, a very small picture on the top and his name above the title. There would be one main color on the front and a different solid color along the spine. Eventually, by the end of the eighties, all of his books except Time and Timbuktu and Canary in a Cathouse, both of which were out of print by this time, had been released in this format. This is the version that I like best and we have all of his books that are available in this format except for three – we never got Happy Birthday, Wanda June, partially because it’s a play and not very good, partially because it was only available as a trade, not as a mass market; the other two we have never gotten in this format are Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan. We would like to, but starting in the later nineties, Dell replaced them all with trade copies, so they are no longer in print. The other problem is that when Dell switched from the old design back in the eighties, they kept the same ISBNs on all the books, so if I order on-line, I can’t guarantee I’m getting the book I want.
“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Maffia.” (The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut)
But look at those books. Aren’t they beautiful? Fuck the Kindle. I’d much rather have that collection on the left. I’d much rather flip through my copy of Palm Sunday looking for his list of grades than scrolling through endless text.
Certainly Vonnegut is a good author to have a large collection of. His books are funny and brilliant, wonderful to return to after a long while away.
Here is a bibliography for Vonnegut:
- Player Piano (1952) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440170370 – his first novel, a dystopian nightmare – later retitled Utopia 14 in paperback
- The Sirens of Titan (1959) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440179483 – a science fiction classic
- Mother Night (1961) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440158532 – one of my top 100
- Canary in a Cat House (1961) – his first short story collection, now out of print
- Cat’s Cradle (1963) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440111498 – see my review here
- God Bless You Mr. Rosewater (1965) – DELL mass market ISBN: 044012929x – the first appearance of Kilgore Trout
- Welcome to the Monkey House (1968) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440194784 – a short story collection that includes most of the stories from Canary
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440180295 – widely regarded (including by me) as Vonnegut’s best book
- Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970) – a play
- Breakfast of Champions (1973) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440131480 – his strangest book, considered be some to be his best
- Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440185335 – a collection of essays
- Slapstick (1976) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440180090 – by Vonnegut’s view, his worst novel
- Jailbird (1979) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440154731 – Vonnegut takes on Watergate
- Palm Sunday (1981) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440369061 – Vonnegut’s book of introspective essays
- Deadeye Dick (1982) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440117658 – somewhat lesser Vonnegut
- Galapagos (1985) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440127793 – the Vonnegut I book I like more than anyone else does
- Bluebeard (1987) – DELL mass market ISBN: 0440201969 – Vonnegut takes on the art world
- Hocus Pocus (1990) – a hilarious take on the human race
- Fates Worse Than Death (1991) – a third collection of essays
- Timequake (1997) – the last novel
- Bagombo Snuff Box (1999) – uncollected fiction
- God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian (1999) – a meditative essay on Kervorkian
- A Man Without a Country (2005) – his last book, a meditation on current times
- Armageddon in Retrospect (2008) – posthumous collection
- Look at the Birdie (2009) – second posthumous collection – unpublished work
In Palm Sunday, Vonnegut made the audacious decision to actually grade his works. The following books received the following grades:
- Player Piano: B
- The Sirens of Titan: A
- Mother Night: A
- Cat’s Cradle: A+
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
- Slaughterhouse-Five: A+
- Welcome to the Monkeyhouse: B-
- Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
- Breakfast of Champions: C
- Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons: C
- Slapstick: D
- Jailbird: A
- Palm Sunday: C
At the time that I first read it, I had read all of those works and I felt that he under-rated his essay collections and had over-rated Jailbird, which I never really got into. While I can’t get the hang of grading non-fiction books, my grades on his fiction would go like this:
- Player Piano: A-
- The Sirens of Titan: B+
- Mother Night: A+
- Cat’s Cradle: A+
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: B+
- Slaughterhouse-Five: A+
- Welcome to the Monkeyhouse: B
- Breakfast of Champions: C
- Slapstick: C-
- Jailbird: C-
- Deadeye Dick: C
- Galapagos: B
- Bluebeard: B-
- Hocus Pocus: A-
- Timequake: B+
- Bagombo Snuff Box: B
- Armageddon in Retrospect: B-
- Look at the Birdie: C-
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Vonnegut connection between Veronica and I. We hadn’t been working together very long at Barnes and Noble when Bagombo Snuff Box was released. I was excited and looking at it and she came by and was furious. “He promised that Timequake was going to be his last!” she said. Even though this wasn’t new writing, but simply a collection of previously uncollected stories, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. This was the start of the two of us bonding over Vonnegut. She had read him for a class in college while I had simply discovered him on my own and devoured pretty much every one of his books in one quick semester, the fall of my junior year. But it was one of those things that first helped bring us together. That and our mutual disdain for the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
“There is love enough in this world for everybody if people will just look.” (Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut)