I have wanted to read Slaughterhouse-Five for many years. I’ve bought a copy at least two or three times, only to leave it unread on my bookshelf, then misplace it during a move to another city or state. This summer I’ll be doing a lot of driving on my own, so I signed up for an online account with my local library that gives me access to free book downloads. My strategy for the summer is this: in hard copy I’ll read contemporary novels, memoirs or essays. While driving, I’ll listen to classics. I’ve always loved classic literature, but during my MFA program, which I completed in January, I focused on creative nonfiction and memoir. I didn’t read a lot of fiction while I was immersed in the program.
My most recently purchased copy of Slaughterhouse-Five still sits unread on a bookshelf in my writing room, so when I saw that the library had the book on audiotape, I downloaded it onto my computer, then loaded it onto my iPod. I started listening to it on Friday, on a drive from Boston to my parents’ house in upstate New York.
This is what happened. I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike while the first chapter, read by actor Ethan Hawke, played through the radio speakers in my car. It felt, almost immediately, as if the road in front of me all but disappeared. I started hearing things on the recording — words, language, ideas — that completely blew me away. At one point Hawke read a sentence (I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book) that physically sent a chill up my spine. After a while, a strange thing happened. I felt as if I had to pull the car over and find someone, anyone, so I could say, “Did you hear that? Can you believe someone could write like that?” I actually looked around for a minute, as if looking for someone to say this to. Then I remembered I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike, no one I knew was anywhere around, and the idea of stopping was ridiculous.
About an hour and a half into the drive, I realized I’d completely forgotten to stop at a rest stop to get something to eat. It was 1 p.m. in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and I was getting a little light-headed. So I pulled into the last rest stop before the New York State border, parked, walked inside, and bought a medium-sized order of French Fries and a Diet Coke at McDonald’s. Anyone who knows me knows that I almost never eat at McDonald’s (I’m a vegetarian and I usually avoid fast food). When I got back into my car and started driving again, I suddenly saw, in my mind’s eye, how absurd this was — I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike in a Subaru Outback in 2010, eating McDonald’s French Fries and drinking a Diet Coke, while listening to a book about the bombing of Dresden in World War II. I really can’t explain all of the thoughts I had about this, and what kicked off these thoughts. You have to read the book, and get into that mind-set. You have to be in this moment where suddenly you look at life from a different perspective.
It’s just an incredible, amazing thing. My mind is bursting and I am in awe.
Kurt Vonnegut, wherever you are, I find myself thinking (of all things) of what Mike Myers said in Wayne’s World. “I am not worthy.”