Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers! I don’t know if I have said that yet, but I figured it was a salient point to mention first in this post. I think that Vonnegut is great, and I own like nine of his books or something. I mean, his stories have a tendency to run together and also most of them are kind of depressing and he recycles characters and themes and sometimes he gets distracted by how great his own prose is and rambles for pages about nothing (always remember to criticize what you love!), but his books are also really smart and insightful and a great example of how “science fiction” can also be literature and how genre divides that assign literary value are stupid. And he’s funny. He also wrote my favorite book, Cat’s Cradle, which has in many ways shaped my basic world view. I really love Kurt Vonnegut, you guys.
That said, I have just finished reading A Man Without A Country, which is the closest thing Vonnegut ever wrote to an auto-biography, and I take issue with it! Or at least some of it. Actually it’s only this one section that I take issue with, but ISSUE HAS BEEN TAKEN so let’s talk about it.
The section in question occurs about halfway through the book, where Vonnegut begins to talk about how much he hates computers. Well, more specifically, he’s talking about how much he loves typewriters, and how computers and technological progress in general have taken them away. Never mind that typewriters are still very much available and used, albeit mostly by hipsters, to this day. What I take issue with in this particular section of this book is Vonnegut’s long, intricately detailed description of what his life was like when he used a typewriter, which involved going to the post office to mail his manuscripts and interacting with people along the way. Basically this entire section of book is dedicated to the idea that advancing technology is ruining creativity and discouraging human interaction, and it is a bad thing because soon we won’t have typewriters.
This is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever read, and here’s why: typewriters are a technological advancement. So is the post office. Literally the entire scenario Vonnegut is writing about is built around technological advancements. The only difference between them and computers is how old he happened to be when they were invented. Technology is never going to kill human interaction. You can’t kill the human desire to create a community. We’re like weeds. We just keep growing into one another. And computers, specifically, don’t disconnect people from humanity–they build connections. The Internet is a tool that people use to find and talk to one another. Anyone who says the Internet is destroying human connection doesn’t understand the Internet.
Vonnegut was old when he wrote this book. He was 84. He’s dead now. He’d been around a long time, saw WW2, saw the world change around him. It’s not uncommon for people who grew up in one world to feel alienated by the world that comes after it, and it’s easy to blame the technology that makes it possible. But you don’t have to personally embrace a technology to understand its value. For example: I have no intention of ever adopting e-reader technology. I will probably never adopt it because I just like books way too much.
Actually, to say that I like books would be an understatement. I am enraptured by them, enamored, utterly and exquisitely taken. I love the way they smell. I love the way they feel when I hold them in my hands. I love the way the pages start to fray, get soft and turn yellow when you’ve read it so many times you can practically recite the prose, and I love how even the most gentle, reverential handling will still leave the spine creased at the bits that you are most prone to re-reading. I love to write in them–at least in the really good ones, and the anthologies. I love catching sight of the spine of a book in my purse, gently reminding me that, later, I will get to read again. I love lining the shelves and walls and desks and floor and every other possible surface of my room with them. I love reading them on the bus with the cover proudly facing outward, so that every minute I spend enjoying a text doubles as advertising for it, and maybe someone else will be inspired to pick it up. I love foisting them off on other people, so that they can also experience the joy of words on a page, even if they don’t really want to (I’m not sorry). In short, I’m what you call an old-fashioned bibliophile, and I have very little interest in e-readers.
But I do not have a problem with e-readers. In fact, I think that e-readers are a fantastic invention, and that they represent the future of literature. They’re convenient, especially for people who travel a lot, because they allow you to carry multiple books–even your entire collection–on one light-weight device. That alone is more than enough reason to welcome the technology. But e-readers also make it possible to produce books for next to nothing, which opens a whole world of possibilities. Self-publishers aren’t stymied at the huge overheads involved in printing; publishing houses can similarly save on overhead, reducing the cost of books and making them more accessible without having to cut into the author’s (or the publisher’s) profit margins; they use fewer resources, particularly when it comes to shipping and handling; and, perhaps most importantly, they still allow lending and borrowing, both from your friends and from the library, so that they don’t kill the community that springs up around a book. It’s not a technology that I think will ever be right for me (though I do like to travel a lot and books are heavy, so never say never), but it is something I welcome with open arms. Reading is still reading, no matter what surface the words are written on.
And this is why I think Vonnegut was so wrong to disparage computers. Just because the technology didn’t agree with him doesn’t mean the technology is value-less. In fact, computers are a big fucking deal, and they have been a positive force pretty much across the boards. Ignoring that because you like being forced to interact with other people at the post office is, frankly, stupid.
“I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” -Kurt Vonnegut
P.S. Also, in case anybody is curious, this is the book where that incredibly over-quoted line about semi-colons comes from:
Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
People seriously need to stop quoting this as proof that semi-colons are bad because Vonnegut uses them all the time. He just represents them with dashes instead of the actual punctuation mark, because god forbid he should use the mark that is actually intended for that purpose. Examples from this book alone:
-It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people–they’re so stupid.
-That was when I got my first driver’s license–look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!
-We would chit-chat back and forth–I love to talk to people.
-First I lick the mucilage–it’s kind of sexy.
-The dying stopped–imagine that!
Oh, and then there’s the bit where he uses a semicolon and pokes fun at anyone who thinks there are hard and fast rules about writing:
Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.
And there, I’ve just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.
So stop fucking quoting that line out of context.