“Why? Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” — Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

(above: the Emelie Building – home of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library)

We had a really great meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club yesterday in downtown Indianapolis.  The club meets the last Thursday of the month at the future home of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. There were ten people in attendance – double the last meeting – from all walks of life and including one of the directors of the library, and a woman who as I understand it is the driving force in its creation.  We also had retired persons, representatives from an audio books company here in town, Taped Editions, Inc., someone from the corporate library of the Eli Lilly Company, a former teacher of English Literature.  A great eclectic group.  I am already looking forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be reading Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of Vonnegut’s short stories.

The quotation in the title of this post comes from a story in the prologue where a young Vonnegut went to lunch with his father and uncle to meet labor organizer Powers Hapgood (above), who uttered the words in answer to a judge’s question of  “Why would a man from such a distinguished family and with such a fine education choose to live as you do?”  “Why, Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” Vonnegut goes on to explain “what, exactly is the Sermon on the Mount” – basically it’s the “meek shall inherit the earth” part.

The main character in this book, Walter F. Starbuck, though poor, is mentored from an early age by a scion of one of those rich, dynastic families, Alexander Hamilton McCone.  Starbuck is ’trained’ to play chess with McCone in return for his sending him to Harvard someday.  At Harvard, Starbuck becomes an idealist and is caught up in the communist movement and ends up going to jail in addition to inadvertently informing on a friend.  After his original hitch in prison, he goes on to become a minor employee of the government who is caught up in the Watergate scandal and goes to prison yet again.  Starbuck has the Forrest Gump-like quality of having history “happen to him” by way of which we get a great story which allows the author to comment on society and its ills.

We talked a lot at the meeting about the ‘deeper meaning’ of much of the book, but I also pointed out that just based on the ‘face value’ of the writing itself, the book has great value as well.

One of my favorite, not as ‘deep’ parts of the book was in chapter twelve, when the recently released Starbuck is wandering Manhattan and spots the Coffee Shop of the Hotel Royalton:

“I believed that I was the ugliest, dirtiest little old bum in Manhattan.  If I went into the coffee shop, everybody would be nauseated.  They would throw me out and tell me to go to the Bowery, where I belonged.

“But I somehow found the courage to go in anyway – and imagine my surprise! It was as though I had died and gone to heaven! A waitress said to me, ‘Honeybunch, you sit right down, and I’ll bring you your coffee right away.’ I hadn’t said anything to her.

“So I did sit down, and everywhere I looked I saw customers of every description being received with love.  To the waitress everybody was ‘honeybunch’ and ‘darling’ and ‘dear.’ It was like an emergency ward after a great catastrophe. It did not matter what race or class the victims belonged to. They were all given the same miracle drug, which was coffee.  The catastrophe in this case, of course, was that the sun had come up again.”

Great stuff.


(above: Vonnegut puffing away – no doubt on a Pall Mall…) I recommend this book, although I wouldn’t suggest making it your first Vonnegut book.  One thing we talked about at the meeting yesterday was that the more Vonnegut one reads, the easier it becomes.  The reader becomes acclimated to the author’s, quirky, tangential writing style.

Have you read any Kurt Vonnegut?  What are some of your favorite books of his?

I also found on the internet a great old review of Jailbird from the NY Times in 1979.

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So, What’s on My Reading Schedule for September?

It seems my reading for the next month has already been determined by all my “book club” commitments. This is what’s on the agenda:

1.) There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth (by William E. Bartelt)

This is the September book for the “Bookmama’s” bookstore’s discussion group. I have been to a couple of their previous discussions earlier this year (Fahrenheit 451 & Some Buried Caesar) but haven’t made it back lately due to scheduling conflicts. I spoke to Kathleen, the owner of the store, yesterday and she said that the author of this book will also be there, so I hate to miss an opportunity to discuss a book with the author present. This meeting will take place on Monday, September 13th, so I don’t have much time, but there is a three-day weekend between now and then… Also, I don’t even have a copy of the book yet, but I ordered it yesterday and Kathleen said I could pick it up next weekend. This book also fits into my Project: Civil War reading.

2.) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

This is my book club’s September book a and is actually one that I picked for us to read. (we take turns picking from a list of suggested titles by members of the club, but one cannot pick his own suggested book). Is is one of those books that, throughout my life, friends have suggested I read, saying “knowing you, I bet you’d really like this book,” etc. I’m skeptical but we’ll see. Someone said it sounds a lot like another book my club read (Illusions by Richard Bach) which I did not like AT ALL, so I am a bit concerned… I’ve downloaded this book already from Barnes & Noble and it’s not too long, so we’ll see.

3.) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This will be a re-read for me (third time). My original book club back in the 90’s read it on my recommendation, and I read it myself for the first time in the late 80’s and was very pleasantly surprised, not knowing it wasn’t just a ‘monster book.” This book is the featured reading of a “Great Books” reading group on the north side of Indianapolis, a couple members of which I’ve met on my visits to the local chapter of the CFI (Center for Inquiry), an organization that promotes science and critical thinking. They have a weekly Sunday morning “coffee & conversation” at their location downtown on the canal, which usually features a lot of intimidatingly smart people. For the most part I just keep quiet and nod my head occasionally…

4.) Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

One of my favorite “discoveries” this year is the soon-to-open Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Indianapolis. They actually have an all-Vonnegut book club that meets the last Thursday of the month (September 30th in this case). I visited them last week for their meeting on Slapstick (more on that later) and it’s a nice group of people, one of whom was a personal friend of Vonnegut(!) and another of whom knows mNy of the Vonnegut family through her work in establishing the memorial library.

That seems like a lot of reading (“required” reading, anyway) for one month, but I think I’ll be able to handle it, and it’s not any more than I’ve been averaging this year.

Well, that’s what’s on tab for Jay this month. What are you reading? Have you read any of these four? Anything I “need to know”…?

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