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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young on Kindness, Computers, Community, and the Power of Great Teachers

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“Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”

Kurt Vonnegut was a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, a kind of modern sage and poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad. After the publication of his now-legendary 1969 satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut added another point of excellence to his résumé: He became one of the country’s most celebrated and sought-after commencement speakers, and like other masters of the genre — including Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett — he bestowed his gift of wit and wisdom upon throngs of eager young people entering the so-called “real world.”

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library) collects the graduation addresses the beloved writer delivered at nine different colleges over the quarter century between 1978 and 2004, among which are his poignant and heartening remarks to the women of the graduating class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, delivered on May 15, 1999 — the speech from which this entire collection borrows its title.

With his signature self-deprecation, Vonnegut reflects on the gift of compassion and how we — as a civilization, a culture, and as individuals — have failed it:

I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?” What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.

Though Vonnegut described himself as a Humanist — a secular set of beliefs to which Isaac Asimov also subscribed as an alternative to religion — and even called himself an atheist in another commencement address, he points to the story of Jesus Christ not as a religious teaching but as a cultural narrative that bequeaths a valuable moral disposition:

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”

His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s “E = mc2.”

Vonnegut makes sure his disposition toward religion isn’t misunderstood and the religiosity of these tales doesn’t obscure his larger point:

I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.

This disposition, Vonnegut argues, is a personal choice, an individual moral obligation, something to cultivate within ourselves — even it means going against the cultural current:

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on…

But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same — so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.

He then turns an optimistic eye toward the creative arts — the music, painting, literature, film, theater, and all the humane ideas that “make us feel honored to be members of the human race” — urging the graduating women to consider how they would contribute to that world and offering them a gender-appropriate revision of Robert Browning’s famous line, replacing his word “man,” an old-timey linguistic convention denoting a human being, with “woman”:

A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Vonnegut turns to the nature of human relationships and what he considers to be the only true source of friction for lovers, often mistaken for more superficial motives:

You should know that when a husband and wife fight, it may seem to be about money or sex or power.

But what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people.”

[…]

If you determine that that really is what they’ve been yelling at each other about, tell them to become more people for each other by joining a synthetic extended family — like the Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or the American Humanist Association, with headquarters in Amherst, New York — or the nearest church.

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.” Such counsel seems, in hindsight, particularly at odds with something else he proclaimed when he stood before the women of Agnes Scott College that spring afternoon in 1999:

Computers are no more your friends, and no more increasers of your brainpower, than slot machines…

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

The latter, of course, is something only a man can say — but given what a warm-hearted and thoughtful man Vonnegut was, the safe and decent thing to do would be to attribute such a well-meaning but ignorant remark not to ill intent but to his all too deeply engrained Y chromosome, or more precisely to his having unwittingly swum with the current his whole life.

More importantly, however, it’s interesting to consider that Vonnegut — writing in 1999, before Facebook and Twitter and most current thriving online communities existed — so readily dismisses the connective potentiality of “computers” (and even advises those women who may want to pursue motherhood to “keep that kid the hell away from computers… unless you want it to be a lonesome imbecile”) while in the same breath urging us to seek out “a synthetic extended family.” He even admonishes: “Don’t try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet. Get yourself a Harley and join the Hell’s Angels instead.” One ought to wonder how Vonnegut might feel if he were alive today to witness many of these initially online-only “ghostly” connections blossom into deep and real relationships offline, the best of them of the lifelong kind.

A curmudgeonly celebrator at heart but a celebrator above all, Vonnegut then returns to his optimistic vision for these young women’s lives:

By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.

[…]

Most of you are preparing to enter fields unattractive to greedy persons, such as education and the healing arts. Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.

(A necessary aside here: If any of Vonnegut’s words to the young women appear patronizing, this is more a function of the genre than of the man: Lest we forget, the basic rhetoric of the commencement address is one where a patronly “father figure” (or a matronly “mother figure”) gets up in front of a green crop of young minds and proceeds to dispense wisdom on how to live — wisdom that comes from a hard-earned, know-better place of having lived it himself or herself. The very point of a commencement address, it’s safe to say, is to be willingly patronized.)

Vonnegut’s closing remarks are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gladdening celebration of books and reading:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

He concludes with a wonderful anecdote about his Uncle Alex, from which this entire collection borrows its title:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And just to drive his point home in the most heartfelt way possible, Vonnegut ends with a soul-warming exercise:

That’s one favor I’ve asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? is a spectacular read in its entirety, brimming with Vonnegut’s unflinching convictions and timeless advice to the young. Complement it with more of history’s greatest commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essential ingredients of happiness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, and Bill Watterson on not selling out.

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I Can Fly: A Heartening Vintage Gem by Ruth Krauss, with Illustrations by Celebrated Disney Artist Mary Blair

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Simple verses with a thoughtful message.

Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) is one of the most inspired and imaginative children’s storytellers of the twentieth century. Under the great Ursula Nordstrom‘s wing — who had a special gift for nurturing young talent — Krauss went on to write nearly fifty books, including two tender collaborations with young Maurice Sendak. Among her loveliest is I Can Fly (public library), originally published in 1951 as part of the beloved Little Golden Book series. A seemingly simple, wonderfully uplifting rhyme by Krauss, with illustrations by the celebrated Disney artist Mary Blair (who developed the concept art for such Disney classics as Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland) the book was mercifully resurrected from the cemetery of out-of-print treasures and republished in a crisp new edition, which is even available in digital form.

A bird can fly.
So can I.

A cow can moo.
I can too.

Underneath the light verses is a playful but profound reminder of our connection with the natural world and the notion that we aren’t so different from our fellow nonhuman beings, with whom we share a reality in an intricate mesh of belonging.

I’m merrier
than a terrier.

Pitter pitter pat
I can walk like a cat.

But Krauss’s most important message wasn’t an overt one. In fact, what makes her books especially exceptional is that she frequently featured female protagonists — far from the norm at the time and, sadly, still an exception half a century later when only 31% of books feature female lead characters. It may seem like a simple thing — the seemingly benign choice of hero or heroine in a children’s story — but to offer a quietly dissenting alternative to a fragment of hegemonic culture is no small gift. Krauss was a generous gift-giver.

Howl howl howl
I’m an old screech owl.

Short as it may be, I Can Fly is infinitely delightful in its entirety. Complement it with Open House for Butterflies, Krauss’s final and loveliest collaboration with Sendak.

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Posterity Is Stupid: 19-Year-Old Italo Calvino on Living with Integrity and How to Assert Yourself

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“Asserting oneself … doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours.”

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off,” Italo Calvino observed in one of his 14 definitions of what makes a classic. But while these were directed at literature, can a life be a classic, in how it is lived and what “pulviscular cloud” of cultural discourse it leaves behind? If there ever was a life imbued with a resounding “yes,” it’s Calvino’s own, and this is something he himself addresses implicitly, with equal parts wisdom and irreverent wit, in a letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari from March 7, 1942, found in the altogether fantastic Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, his thoughts on America, and his wonderfully timeless New Year’s resolution. At the time of his letter to Scalfari, young Calvino was taking his second year of studies at the University of Turin, where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy, following in his family’s footsteps and pursuing a degree in agriculture. After the war, he would eventually return to university, abandoning agriculture and turning toward a degree in the arts shortly before immersing himself in the literary world.

After noting what joy it is “to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel” — an observation bittersweet in our age of short-form instantaneous drivel — 19-year-old Calvino launches into an extended meditation on life and legacy:

When will you stop pronouncing in my presence phrases such as “all methods are fine as long as you succeed,” or “follow the current,” or “adapt to the times”? What do you mean by “adapting to the times”? Are these the ideas of a young man who ought to face life with pureness of intentions and clarity of ideals? And then you think you can claim to have understood me, to have taken me as a model? No, that deluded youth of Via Bogino, the prisoner of his dreams in Villa Meridiana does not think along those lines. A different heart beats beneath the pigeon chest of the cloud-catcher of San Giovanni. [Ed: The Calvino’s family home was the Villa Meridiana in San Remo, and they also had land in the countryside in the village of San Giovanni.] Asserting oneself — he says — doesn’t mean asserting a name and a person. It means asserting oneself with all that one has inside, and what he has inside, underneath that pigeon chest, is taking on more and more precise contours. And it is precisely in that that my certainty lies: this something does not represent today, it represents tomorrow. And it is this something that I want to assert, not italocalvino; italocalvino will die and won’t serve any purpose any more; the something will remain and will provide good seed.

He then chastises Scalfari for the all too human folly of fetishizing one’s own ideas:

Every idea you have, you become a fetishist of it, you think it’s the greatest and most original idea that any human mind ever had, you turn it into a philosophy of life and bore the backside off your friends. But you’re also a well-meaning sort, and you’ll be happy because you see the world only as you like to see it.

Even though he wasn’t yet a writer, Calvino considers his own vanity with the classic writerly blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation:

I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey.

He adds a poignant reflection on our inescapable illusion of uniqueness, a special kind of human vanity:

This thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who italocalvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things.

And yet, a writer among agronomists — his “pigeon-chest” full of uncontainable ambition for eagleness in an aviary designed for pragmatic postal pigeons — young Calvino makes it clear where his stake is to be planted in the spectrum from realism to idealism:

Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art.

The following day, March 8, he takes up the unfinished letter and adds before changing the subject:

I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:

POSTERITY IS STUPID

Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!

And yet, stupid as we may be, it’s hard not to appreciate Calvino’s crystalline self-awareness and deep insight into the human soul, even in this concluding attempt at a disclaimer. No amount of self-deprecation can ever blunt a mind this sharp or dim a spirit this luminous.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is a remarkably rich read, a ruffle of layer upon layer of appreciation for Calvino’s singular person and persona. Sample it further with more of his wisdom on writing and the meaning of human life.

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