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Kurt Vonnegut: 'A Man Without a Country'

Sep 11, 2005 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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From his first novel, Player Piano, through such classics as Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has entranced readers, often using sardonic humor to depict horrific events.

Now 82, he lives in New York City and his writing remains trenchant. This week, Vonnegut's collection of essays and speeches, A Man Without a Country will be published by Seven Stories Press. Read an excerpt:

From 'A Man without a Country'

We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment.

In 1892 if you were a seven-year-old, you'd read a story — just a very simple one — about a girl whose dog had died. Doesn't that make you want to cry?

Don't you know how that little girl feels? And you'd read another story about a rich man slipping on a banana peel. Doesn't that make you want to laugh? And this imagination circuit is being built in your head. If you go to an art gallery, here's just a square with daubs of paint on it that haven't moved in hundreds of years. No sound comes out of it.

The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numerals, and about eight punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo.

But it's no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. Now there's the information highway. We don't need the circuits any more than we need to know how to ride horses. Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone's face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.

Published by permission of the author and Seven Stories Press.

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