It seems incredibly melodramatic to say that a book has changed my life. It’s the kind of statement that, coming from the mouth of someone else, would make me roll my eyes and say something sarcastic like, “Please tell me more about your spiritual journey, bro.” Yet just the same, Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Breakfast of Champions, really did change my life. It’s the story of one of Vonnegut’s more famous characters, science fiction author Kilgore Trout, and the car salesmen who goes insane after taking his works literally. I’m not sure if it was the simple yet biting social commentary, unique narration style, or crude drawings of lady parts, but something about the book resonated with me within ten pages. No, it didn’t make me treat people better or anything like that, but it did make me want to take writing more seriously.
Now, obviously, I think you should read the whole thing. But if you don’t, please, for the love of god, read these five incredible quotations. Each one made me want to stop mid-story and either laugh, cry, or at least stare into the distance in pretentious thought.
1. “Ideas on earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.”
It is as if Kurt Vonnegut peered into his crystal ball and saw the invention of cable news. He saw a world where politics had become so divisive that a senator could get away with saying almost anything he wanted, knowing full well he would have the support of about one half of the population.
2. “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”
This was a humbling moment for me, because I realized that the stories Vonnegut’s fictional characters were writing had more entertaining premises than the ones I, a real flesh and blood writer, was developing.
3. “Much of the conversation in the country consisted of lines from television shows, both past and present.”
After reading this, all I could think about was the million bars around the country where the only conversation consists of a bunch of dudes quoting “Family Guy.”
4. “He wanted to talk to them, if he could, to discover whether they had truths about life which he had never heard before. Here is what he hoped new truths might do for him: enable him to laugh at his troubles, to go on living, and to keep out of the North Wing of the Midland County General Hospital, which was for lunatics.”
I’ve always enjoyed the way Vonnegut mocks our incessant need to find meaning in our day-to-day lives, while simultaneously finding meaning in these same events. It’s a trick that few writers have ever mastered.
5. “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.”
Obviously the issue of Vietnam was slightly more complicated than this, but one of the narrator’s gimmicks in BoC is to strip everything down and remove context. What you’re left with is either grim, hilarious, or in this case…both.
What’s the one book that changed your life?