01 August 2007

A Man Without a Country

Tonight I read Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, and did so within the span of an hour. It was I think one of the most enjoyable hours I've ever spent. The book was very readable, and I read it while listening to "Evening Jazz"; the two blended together to make a lovely evening. Vonnegut wasn't a name I hadn't heard much about until after he died. I was dimly aware of the name, but was clueless otherwise. A few weeks ago I checked out Cat's Cradle but didn't really get into it; it didn't help that my reading list had a lot of other books competing for my attention, and I find it easier to focus on nonfiction. The library had one of his nonfiction works, though, and I decided to read it. I knew I would enjoy it, as I have perused Mr. Vonnegut's WikiQuote page a number of times. Some of the best quotations I've read by him come from that book, and I thought I would share some here for those who haven't read it. I mostly enjoyed the latter half of the book because its essays dealt closely with the subject of idealism in human experience.

"How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."
"Do you know what a humanist is? My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorable as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn't think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn't think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any familiarity, which is our community."

"I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say 'Kurt is up in heaven now'. That is my favorite joke."

"So be [a wise human] anyway. Save our lives and your lives, too. Be honorable."

"It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution."

"While on the subject of burning books, I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, their powerful political connections or great wealth, who, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desk of our public libraries."

"[...]I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behave decently in a strikingly indecent society."

Joe, a young man from Pittsburg, came to me with one request: 'Please tell me it will all be okay.'
'Welcome to Earth, young man," I said, 'It's hot in summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of: Goddam it Joe, you've got to be kind!'"

"But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice I don't know what is.'"

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