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10 years after his death, Vonnegut's books are still 'dynamite in our hands'

by Rosalie Atkinson | Off-Ramp®

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Professor dAvid pAddy and a sample of Kurt Vonnegut's work Rosalie Atkinson

"I think they feel like they're dangerous books. I think especially if you are a teenager, or a college student, there's a way they feel like dynamite in your hands. And it feels like he's saying things that other people aren't telling you." -- dAvid pAddy, Whittier College

Ten years ago Tuesday, writer Kurt Vonnegut died. His novels - notably "Cat's Cradle," "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," "Slaughterhouse-Five," and "Breakfast of Champions" - are still devoured by readers young and old.

Writer Kurt Vonnegut, c. 1972
Writer Kurt Vonnegut, c. 1972 WNET-TV/Wikipedia Commons

But Vonnegut's message seems to really draw young readers. Professor of English Literature at Whittier College dAvid pAddy* says it's because of Vonnegut's irreverent voice:

It's a comic voice but it's also subversive. There's a giddiness about reading him. And I sometimes think back, like when I first read him and there was a feeling of 'Oh, it's funny!'... then I'd go back and reread and think 'Why did I find this funny?' They're actually dark and serious.

pAddy says Vonnegut connects with readers because he was speaking truths, at least about the world as he knew it. As a college student, pAddy says, "We never had Vonnegut assigned in classes but that's what you did in college, you read Vonnegut. He's an easy person to pick up and start reading."

Whittier College's Professor dAvid pAddy reads from the introduction of "Breakfast of Champions," a tribute to his friend Phoebe Hurty.
Whittier College's Professor dAvid pAddy reads from the introduction of "Breakfast of Champions," a tribute to his friend Phoebe Hurty. Rosalie Atkinson

Listen to the audio to hear pAddy read from "Breakfast of Champions."

Vonnegut's most acclaimed and somewhat autobiographical novel, "Slaughterhouse Five" includes a re-imagining of the Allied fire bombing of the German city Dresden. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans but survived the firestorm because POWs were routinely held in underground meat-lockers. His was labeled Schlachthof Fünf - Slaughterhouse Five.

"There's a core of trauma at the heart of all of his books. Obviously the personal experiences -in Dresden- and I think depression in his own life. There's a sadness at the core of everything he writes... but I think where he differs and why he really matters for us now is: as much as his works are about trauma, they're not about indulging in that trauma. They're not about indulging in the misery or just sort of dropping down in the mire. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2XDniq7azM

But to pAddy, it's the element of hope in Vonnegut's writing that makes it so critical for readers now. He says, "He was a liberal humanist that believed in the essential good of people and I think he was always being tested by it. We need to hear that. That sense of both how you respond to a feeling of destruction, apocalypse, chaos, trauma but then, what's the hope you hold onto, despite how bleak it all seems?"

Vonnegut in Professor dAvid pAddy's personal library
Vonnegut in Professor dAvid pAddy's personal library Rosalie Atkinson

So why do we still read Kurt Vonnegut? Says pAddy, "Because we have to."

And so it goes.

*From pAddy's website: "For some reason, he will not explain why his name looks so funny."

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