With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Dan Wakefield was a longtime friend of Kurt Vonnegut, and has edited and written the introduction for several volumes collecting Vonnegut’s work, including Kurt Vonnegut: Letters and the recently published speech collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Wakefield is the author of the memoirs New York In The Fifties and Returning: A Spiritual Journey. His novel, Going All The Way was made into a 1996 movie starring Ben Affleck. Wakefield also served as the series creator of the NBC’s prime-time series James At 15. Wakefield was kind enough to compile a list of Vonnegut readings (by Kurt and his son Mark) to use when making major life decisions and provide a rationale for each entry.
Dan Wakefield’s list of Vonnegut reads for life decisions:
Best Vonnegut to read when tempted to try LSD: The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut (with preface by Kurt Vonnegut)
Kurt’s son Mark wrote a searing account of LSD and its aftermath that will discourage vision-seekers unless your vision is to spend time in the loony bin. Odds are you won’t be as resourceful as Mark, who made it from the bughouse to Harvard Medical School and a career as a doctor.
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to found a religion: Cat’s Cradle
Vonnegut’s “Bokononism” is full of rhymes that express subversive truth: “So I said goodbye to government / and I gave my reason / That a really good religion / is a form of treason.”
Best Vonnegut to clear your mind while under a lot of stress (without using Zen meditation): The Bogambo Snuffbox
Vonnegut said reading short stories had the same result as meditation—lowering your heart rate and clearing your mind. He called reading short stories “Buddhist Catnaps.”
Best Vonnegut to read if you’re considering becoming a philanthropist: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
This novel shows how hard it is to give money away and not get into trouble! But it’s still possible. If you don’t have a lot of money to give away, the best thing you can do for your fellow citizens is to become (as Vonnegut himself did) a volunteer fireman!
Best Vonnegut to read to discourage you from joining the CIA: Mother Night
Becoming a secret agent most likely will end in disaster, and becoming a double agent will double your chances of disaster. (See Nick Nolte act it out in a gripping but little-known movie of the same name.)
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to become a pacifist: Slaughterhouse-Five
After he was taken as a prisoner of war in one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, it took Vonnegut 20 years to write about his searing experience of surviving the fire-bombing of Dresden. His hero, “Billy Pilgrim,” becomes “unstuck in time,” though he will always be “stuck,” like his author, with the nightmare of war.
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to communicate with another planet: The Sirens Of Titan
Once you learn what message the creatures from another planet actually convey to your own planet—with amazing feats of technology and creativity—you may decide you’d be better off going to a Cubs game.
Best Vonnegut book to read if you want to save our planet: A Man Without A Country
Vonnegut writes with passion about “the crucified planet earth,” and throws in a writing lesson on how to understand the plots of stories (with graphs!).
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to become an opinion writer (editorials, blogs, or tweets): Wampeters, Foma, And Granfalloons: (Opinions)
The title comes from terms used in “Bokononism,” the invented religion in Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut explains that “A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may evolve.” If you are among these who are entertained and enlightened by Vonnegut’s Opinions, you are a part of a wampeter. If you are part of that wampeter, this is the book for you! It’s composed of a lot of Vonnegut’s opinions that he hasn’t (or maybe he has) expressed through his novels and short stories. Vonnegut’s opinions are written as if he is speaking to you (they sound more like “nuggets” of truth, rather than lectures: “I keep losing my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction.”
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to become a minister: Palm Sunday
If you become a minister, you will need to give a sermon every Sunday and will easily run out, so you may need to get some ideas from a sermon Vonnegut gave on Palm Sunday. Vonnegut was Honorary President of The American Humanist Society, and not a Christian, though he was asked to give a Palm Sunday sermon at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York City, and that is one of the gems of this collection of his articles, essays, and talks. “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount,” he said. “Being Merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another good idea by and by—and then we will have two good ideas.”
Best Vonnegut to read if you want to know how to get published after being rejected by your former three publishers: Welcome To The Monkey House
Here’s how Vonnegut did it: He wrote a review of a new dictionary that was so damn clever and insightful and true that a new publisher wrote him a fan letter and said if he was ever in need of a publisher to come to see him. Vonnegut did, and that fan published the works that others had rejected and “saved me from smithereens.” The review of the new dictionary was not the academic kind of review you expected to see in a dictionary review, since it used un-scholarly language like “dinky words,” “blooper,” and “lawsy me,” and made people laugh as well as learn something. That review (“New Dictionary”) is just one of the essays, reviews, and short stories that make this book a winner. (It might also be titled “Welcome to Kurt Vonnegut!”)
Best Vonnegut book to read if you want to be a writer and still raise seven children: Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So by Mark Vonnegut
Kurt’s oldest son tells what it was like to grow up with a father who was eking out a living, writing and being rejected not only by publishers along the way, but also by prospective employers before Slaughterhouse-Five made him famous. “I will always remember my father,” Mark wrote, “as the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.”