Book Review: If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut

My fondness of Kurt Vonnegut knows no bounds. I’ve spoken about his best-known piece of fiction, and one of the finest anti-war books (along with Catch-22), Slaughterhouse-Five previously. I’ve read a few other of his novels, too: the Sirens of Titan immediately comes to mind as a wonky, entertaining–and somewhat unsettling–tale of a businessman and entrepeneur stuck in a strange time vortex, shaping the fate and future of humanity. It’s a lark, a satire that forces us to consider just what free will is, and how much of it we have.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young is non-fiction, a collection of graduation addresses whose aim is to let folks in on just what the hell’s waiting for them out there, in the big wide world beyond the relative safety of colleges and universities. It’s a dangerous world, but Vonnegut has words of wisdom to act as–well, not so much weapons against it–but shields, to provide comfort and kindness and protection. Vonnegut, though he often seems to be placed in a postmodernist framework for the way his texts are often fractured, has always struck me as a humanist; I think he might even say as much. It comes from a place of belief in a common humanity, in our capacity for mercy, which Vonnegut describes as the one good idea humanity has come. Though not a Christian, he points to Jesus Christ as the decisive figure to have popularised the idea, and denounces the Code of Hammurabi in its most succinct display of cruelty, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

What are the other subjects he examines in these speeches? Loneliness and boredom, the necessity of coming of age rituals, the function of artists in society, why we shouldn’t ever leave books behind:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good. Their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips.

Chapter 4

Another reason why I love him so; Vonnegut can describe what often seems undescribable, can please you with such delightful, gentle turns of phrase as you mightn’t have expected. I listened to this as an audiobook; the number of bookmarks I placed is witness to the sheer delight his words brought me (and I’m not one to bookmark audiobooks often). The narration is courtesy of Scott Brick, who does a delightful job. It’s a short listen, too, less than two hours and a half, and included in Audible’s Plus catalogue. It was a dear companion as I left my home country once more and flew back to prepare for another year in university, this time at the graduate level.

Vonnegut does seem to have been somewhat more distrustful of computer and TV technology than seems warranted, describing it at one point as being a chief cause of “lonesome imbecile(s), who steal money from your purse so [they] can buy stuff”. I think you and I can forgive him for the caution, even as we might hope he’s wrong.

I leave you with one final piece of advice, helpfully provided by Vonnegut himself: take a moment to appreciate the quiet moments. When you do, ask yourself, “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”

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