13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut

Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

iStock.com/deyangeorgiev
iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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