“A novel is an enormous ball of cotton batting which sops up thousands of hours, giving almost nothing but a little lint in return.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
A while back, our staff book club read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and while picking up the book from the library, I found a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters. I borrowed it, but after several renewals and some pretty impressive procrastination, I only just started getting around to reading it last week. I was on my last renewal, and received an email recall for it back to the library at long last, but then! This past Saturday, I was taking the kiddos for a walk/stroller nap around the neighbourhood, stopping by Balfour Books on my way back to the shop, and what should I see but a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters! Fate.*
I had enjoyed Player Piano, but I’m really enjoying reading his letters. I’m not currently done – I’m just over halfway through – but with our upcoming Letter Writing Club, I thought I would share.
It’s fascinating to get to know an author through his correspondence. Any human, really, but authors sometimes have a way with words. In these letters you get to see so much of Vonnegut’s classic deadpan humour and his philosophies shaped by his war experiences, but I was surprised to learn so much of his graciousness and generosity, his struggles to make a living as a writer. He wrote often to other writers, editors and contemporaries in the publishing industry, including authors Richard Yates and Norman Mailer, among many others. He encouraged and gave advice to other writers, he shared funny anecdotes about stealing stationery or speaking at Harvard with Allen Ginsberg. He is also, as you might imagine, if you have read any of his work, wonderfully to the point.
Despite his massive success following Slaughterhouse-Five, he wasn’t immune to wishing his kids would write to him or visit him more often, a tennis hobby hindered by a weak tennis arm, and difficulty keeping up with correspondence in a timely manner (hah!). Vonnegut also writes about his struggles with mental illness and depression, as well as how his mother’s suicide affected him throughout his lifetime. And through it all, he kept a sense of humour and grace.
One of my favourite documents was near the beginning, a contract between Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, where he outlines his responsibilities in regards to housekeeping, with such gems as:
“I will not put out cigarettes upon the sides of, or throw ashes into either the red leather waste-basket, or the stamp waste-basket which my loving wife made me for Christmas, 1945, as such practise noticeably impairs the beauty, and the ultimate practicality of said waste-baskets;”
“It would be nice, however, if, upon observing the need for disposal with my own two eyes, I should perform this particular task upon my own initiative, and thus not make it necessary for my wife to bring up a subject which is moderately distasteful to her.”
Apparently, though, Vonnegut was actually a bit more progressive or forward minded in his marriage for his time: despite it being customary during this time period for Jane, as the wife of a writer, to take on many administrative (and household) tasks, Vonnegut refrained from requesting certain duties of his wife.
I suppose I’m more interested in this because although Jon really is the one running the show behind Wonder Pens, I also consider myself to be an important support of the whole operation (ho ho). Often people assume that I’m “just” a stay at home mom, while Jon “works” at running the business, which is now mainly because I do actually spend most of my time taking care of the kids and/or doing a relentless amount of laundry. While it’s definitely true that Jon has taken on the brunt of the shop work – managing huge projects like finding a new location for our shop, renovations, logistics of the move, along with managing all of our daily operations – I sometimes find myself having to balance two worlds. Aside from the debate of the value of “domestic work,” which is mainly my domain these days, I also feel like there is a lot to be said, in our particular and unique situation, for the wife behind the husband, who is supporting some of these big projects with ideas and decision making and knowledge and judgement calls on risks and the softer skills of communication and the more nuanced subtleties of the values behind our shop and helping to build the community around us.**
In any case, it was nice to read some more avant-garde husband-wife division of labour. I made Jon read it, following which he laughed awkwardly and said, “well.”
Whenever I read a collection of correspondence, like this one, I’m reminded of the richness of language inherent in a time when people only communicated through letters. Letter writing is a form of communication that concentrates ideas and words, to write a letter was a deliberate act, necessitating many steps and time and thought. Each letter and note holds more value, there’s a story and a message and information in every letter. Rather than the quick blips and typos and relentless barrage of emails, some bereft of meaning and care, there’s mindfulness and attention to each sentence and form when you have to send a real letter through the post. In so many of these letters, you can see Vonnegut’s character, his graciousness and generosity and humour.
I sometimes wonder what is lost by having so much easy and free and instant communication. By all means, through such easy access we seem to have exponentially more to say and email and text, but does the the dilution of our words through the sheer volume of emails floating through cyberspace to each other mean that there may be fewer emails or messages worth keeping?
In any case, all of this discussion turned into rambling was really to say, our Letter Writing Club is back!
It’s coming up this Thursday, June 14th, from 7-9 pm. As always, it’s free and you can drop in anytime. We’ve got stationery, postage, sealing supplies, fountain pens, treats, and of course, good company. We’re running our first one in our new location at 52 Clinton, and I’m pretty excited, if nervous for all the figuring out of the logistics – where the tables go, where we put the treats. We hope you can make it!
*I have a strong working theory about used bookstores and their magic voodoo kismet. I have had several crazy examples where a book I was thinking of or was recently recommended suddenly appeared on shelves at local thrift or second hand book shops. If you are someone who regularly traffics used book stores, you know it’s always a crapshoot going in, you never know what you’re going to get. This theory has been corroborated by other people as well, although an unbiased view might take us all as a bit nutty. But, just so you don’t think I’m completely off my rocker, here are some examples:
- When I was in San Francisco, I visited the famous City Lights Bookstore. I was debating between buying A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara or Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, and chose Yanagihara. The first time I visited Value Village after I returned, I found the Akpan book on the shelves.
- Just three weeks ago (!), I saw Amber, one of the staff, reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and we had a nice conversation about it. Having absolutely zero justification for buying any more books basically ever again for the rest of my life, I socked it away as a hmmm maybe from the library book – and then literally that week, I saw it (and bought it, of course ha ha) at Value Village.
- Just before we left Carlaw, I bought a Murakami book used, and it somehow mysteriously fell out from the bottom of my stroller. I was distraught! (Jon was unimpressed.) What a shame! But then I found the exact same book at The Great Escape used bookstore while waiting to pick up Caleb from preschool. Yes, indeed, I paid for it twice, because clearly this was a title meant to be in my life.
Spooky, I know.
These are just a few recent examples of “coincidences” happening in the complex underworlds of used books. Stay safe, friends.
**All this being said, I honestly could not imagine running a business with anyone other than Jon. There is an incredible amount of stress and work and risk in both running a small business and raising a family in a big city with rapidly rising costs of living. So much of what we’re able to do at home – being able to keep Caleb at home until he was ready for preschool, spending time with the kids, having meals together – is because we can hand off to one another in picking up a child between meeting a contractor on one end of the city and a vendor visit on the other end, or taking stir crazy babies out for a walk while the other is managing customers in and out of the shop.