Recently, I got the chance to go back and relive one of my favorite books, "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut. It's an odd book. It's a sad book, filled with graphic images of violence and suffering U.S. soldiers faced during the climax of World War II. This is also the book where a man gets kidnapped by aliens that look like plungers with hands for heads and time travels through his entire life. The language is so simple that anyone could've written this book, but it's also has moments of pure brilliance that you have to reread to make sure you read it right. It's a great book for those who have reservations about reading, and is one of the funnest books to read.
But why is "Slaughterhouse Five" considered a literary classic? Besides being one of the few pieces of literature that attempts to describe one of least well-known, but equally tragic, bombings during World War II, it's also an anti-war book. Though you won't pick up on that at first; Vonnegut seems to just be describing the events of one man's life, events that sometimes blur the line between reality and fiction. But Vonnegut makes sure you know that he does not find war to be a productive invention, and is able to convey the horror that occur after the main character watches the beautiful city of Dresden, Germany, burn away into a desolate wasteland. Being a survivor helps too; Vonnegut also watched Dresden burn, and returned home with scars that he could only showcase through his writing, and even then it's almost like he didn't say enough.
Vonnegut wrote this book at a time of chaos. It was 1969, and the United States was undergoing a lot of change. The Vietnam War was starting up, a war no one believed could be won. Racism was rampant, even after the Civil Rights Movement won their rights. And the government had been untrustworthy since Nixon resigned from office. The world was burning into a crisp.
So it's so surprise that "Slaughterhouse Five" became a bestseller. With its anti-war views and how much it affects the main character to the point where he becomes delusional, it probably resonated with so many young people. Look, somebody finally gets it! Someone gets what we're feeling! Perhaps it fueled the pessimism the country was having against Vietnam. Perhaps it changed some people's views on war. Who knows? But it didn't become a literary classic just because it was a funny book. It had the power to voice a generation's fears and concerns, even for just a moment. It became a friend of the rebellion.
I wonder what book in our generation will have the same power as "Slaughterhouse Five"? Even now, I hear about riots, bringing down the establishment, etc. People are angry at our government, wanting to fight back and dreaming for a better day. And I have to wonder when we'll start seeing this dissent in our literature. The news is littered with the voices of the discontented, calling for action. But with every bad moment in history, it is our books that carry the weight. Even when the book involves time travel and freaky aliens, books are able to deliver messages of anger, fear, worry and hope. They reflect what we, the people, are thinking, more so than any branch of government. Because that's the power words have on the people.
For a book that likes to make you laugh, "Slaughterhouse Five" really knows how to make you think.