What is a classic? Is it a book you had to read for school, with a confusing number of Greek deities, and there was a test later? Or is it set in a 19th century English drawing room furnished with fainting couches? Italo Calvino gave fourteen possible definitions of a classic.
Here’s my personal take: a classic is a book that sticks. It holds interest for readers decades later. Also, it can include time travel and alien abduction. Witness Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”
“Slaughterhouse Five,” published in 1969, grew out of Vonnegut’s own experiences as a POW in Germany during World War II. Like Vonnegut, the book’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, survives the fire-bombing of Dresden in the basement of a slaughterhouse. Unlike Vonnegut (I assume), Billy is “unstuck in time.”
After the war, Billy becomes a successful optometrist, but his life is complicated when he’s abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who see all of time all at once. Billy is flung backward and forward through time, not always living his life in the right order, but again and again returning to the slaughterhouse in Dresden. It’s left to the reader to decide if the aliens exist outside of Billy’s traumatized mind.
Vonnegut’s writing is full of satire, helping us laugh at the tragedy of existence. In “Slaughterhouse Five” he shatters some writing rules. His main character knows in advance everything that will happen to him, and Vonnegut inserts himself, the author, into the story. He uses these absurdities to emphasize his views on the absurdity of war. Life and war do not follow neat narrative arcs, and neither does this book.
“Cat’s Cradle” is another Vonnegut classic, published in 1963. Employing his familiar tools of irony and wit, he provides such a thorough look at human nature in this science fiction novel that the University of Chicago awarded him a Master’s degree in anthropology for the work.
An author named John is writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. But his plans go off-track in a major way when he discovers the existence of a potentially more lethal threat than nuclear weapons. At the behest of a general who wanted something done about the problem of mud, one of the co-creators of the atomic bomb developed ice-nine, a substance capable of solidifying a field of oozy muck with the deployment of one tiny grain. John instantly realizes such a material would also be capable of freezing the world’s entire water supply. Vonnegut uses this premise to explore all of the weighty topics you’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties – religion, politics, family relationships, scientific ethics and consumer culture.
To browse other classics of American literature, take a look at our catalog list. Enjoy your reading. I promise there won’t be a test.