Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
I vividly remember the moment that my reading world somewhat widened. It was 2002 and I was about to graduate high school, and one of my final projects in A.P. English was to choose a book from this long list to read and present on. I chose Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and began my slow love affair with literary & science fiction. Sixteen years later this is my preferred genre for reading, and I thought it would be interesting to look at the book that changed it all for me! What book(s) opened up your reading horizons?
Before SH5, I never would have given science fiction the time of day – and to be honest it still took a number of years before I branched outside of his works. (I’ve read them all, and I loved the scavenger hunt of seeing the references he makes to his other works.) This book set me on a slow path from a book snob that only read classics to one the voracious reader that I am today – one that gives most books a chance, exploring worlds and theories I never would have otherwise known. I am so grateful. Vonnegut made such an impact in my life that I supported the Vonnegut Museum‘s kickstarter campaign to find a permanent home. One day I hope to make it out there and visit it myself!
For those of you that haven’t read this classic, SH5 is an anti-war novel that follows a non-linear life of Billy Pilgrim, who was present during the bombing of Dresden during WW2. There is no discernible structure to the book, and while this style of writing often drives me insane (not a fan of Bukowski) it works here because to Billy experiencing his life out of order. This is a gloriously weird book that leaves the reader guessing. Was he abducted by aliens? Or was it a defense mechanism to cope with the traumas of war? What he learned from the Tralfmadorians helped him come to peace with the bad — it always existed, and you only experience it for a few brief moments on the cosmic scale.
All moments, past, future, present, have always existed, always will exist… when Tralfmadorians see a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what Tralfmadorians say about dead people, which is ‘so it goes.’
I have a bracelet (pictured) with the quote “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” engraved on it. This quote is often interpreted as focusing on the positive, on finding in the beauty in the world, but given that Vonnegut was a satirist he was saying precisely the opposite. But where many see this as a meaningless void, I find it freeing. Once you confront the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world you are able to take control of your life. -gets on existentialist soap box- Nietzsche talks about how you have to create your own meaning (fashion) in life because life itself is meaningless. This means that you have the freedom to make the life that you want.
Just as growing up a punk rock kid listening to Bad Religion, Vonnegut’s works of fiction drastically shaped my worldview during my formative years. Reading SH5 now is a different experience than it was the first time sixteen years ago, as it was each individual time that I have read it through the years. But more than laying the groundwork for my eventual undergraduate interests, SH5 primed me for a love of philosophy. It made me who I am today.