Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Top 20 Books, #4

Chapter 1
The Day the World Ended

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah -- John -- if I had been a Sam, I would have been a Jonah still -- not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail. Conveyances and motives, both conventional and bizarre, have been provided. And, according to plan, at each appointed second, at each appointed place this Jonah was there.


When I was a younger man -- two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago...

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

The book was to be factual.

The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.

I am a Bokononist now.

I would have been a Bokononist then, if there had been anyone to teach me the bittersweet lies of Bokonon. But Bokononism was unknown beyond the gravel beaches and coral knives that ring this little island in the Caribbean Sea, the Republic of San Lorenzo.

We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

Copyright © 1963 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Much to my father's chagrin, I managed to graduate from college as an English major having never read any Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe a short story, but no novels. Nada. And Vonnegut was one of dear ol' Dad's favorites. It took Southern California Edison to cure me of my Vonnegutian ignorance.

I left college with a major in English and a minor in history and no real plan on how to utilize the degree. So I did what many of us in similar situations did. I temped. I landed a job through Volt Temporary Services as a legal document technician contracted out to Southern California Edison. I'll spare you the details. It was boring, but it was a nice commute from Pasadena to nearby Alhambra, and the people were nice. I had stopped wearing glasses in college, for some reason. After six months working with computers, I needed them again.

What the heck does this have to do with my number 4 favorite book, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle? There was much down time and I looked to my bookshelves to find something to read. For years, I had travelled with a box set of five slim Vonnegut tomes. The red copy below represented what my copy of Cat's Cradle looked like.

I don't know which one I started with but, in the course of a short Summer, I read everything Vonnegut had written. What can I say, I was a late bloomer.

Cat's Cradle remains to this day my favorite work. Sure, Slaughterhouse-Five is genius, as is Breakfast of Champions, but this one rocked me more than any of the others.

Amazon says this:

Cat's Cradle, one of Vonnegut's most entertaining novels, is filled with scientists and G-men and even ordinary folks caught up in the game. These assorted characters chase each other around in search of the world's most important and dangerous substance, a new form of ice that freezes at room temperature. At one time, this novel could probably be found on the bookshelf of every college kid in America; it's still a fabulous read and a great place to start if you're young enough to have missed the first Vonnegut craze.

When it first appeared in 1963, the book was reviewed by Terry Southern for the The New York Times :

Cat's Cradle is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists. Like the best of contemporary satire, it is work of a far more engaging and meaningful order than the melodramatic tripe which most critics seem to consider ''serious.''

What can I say? Read this. If you already have. Read it again.

1 comment:

NicholasGourlay said...

I read this in rehab and I enjoyed it. Not enough too make my top 20 list though.