Take It From Vonnegut: The Graduation Speeches

The title is emblematic of Vonnegut’s repeated attempts, across the nine addresses herein, to take a step back, encourage a broader view
A Kurt Vonnegut illustration from “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” A publisher’s note says the drawings first appeared in “Breakfast of Champions,” but have been “re-imagined and repurposed . . . to accompany the author’s speeches.”

Dissatisfied with your commencement address? With the uninspiring words of the gray senator who sits on the obscure subcommittee? Or the earnestness of the heiress who funneled her wealth into some worthy but uninteresting nonprofit?

Then it’s the Seven Stories Press to the rescue, fresh from the printing plant with Kurt Vonnegut’s “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” The slim volume is subtitled “Advice to the Young,” which is further appended with “The Graduation Speeches,” chosen and with an introduction by an old Indianapolis friend, the writer Dan Wakefield.

The title is emblematic of Vonnegut’s repeated attempts, across the nine addresses herein, to take a step back, encourage a broader view, invoking as it does the words of his favorite uncle, Alex Vonnegut, who believed the secret to a good life was the sweet pause, the look around to appreciate the simplest of pleasures, like a glass of lemonade under a shade tree in summertime, followed by the utterance of that one, affirming question.

As for advice, Vonnegut was too sly and knowing to pretend to ladle it out, though attention must be paid when a writer as known for his atheism as for his chain-smoking calls down 12 words of Jesus of Nazareth (“what does it matter if he was God or not?”) as a cure for the violence plaguing the globe: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Furthermore, he told the graduating class of 1999 at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., “If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.”

Two years later, at Rice University in Houston, our man in letters and wild curly locks is happily deflating the scourges of the age — celebrity worship, the economy’s enrichment of the few — and recalls a comment by his friend Joseph (“Catch-22”) Heller at a lavish party in the Hamptons: “I have something he can never have,” Heller said of the billionaire host. “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

When it comes to toiling through life in the absence of fame and riches, Vonnegut tells the graduates, “In time, this will prove to have been the destiny of most, but not all of you. You will find yourselves building or strengthening your communities. Please love that destiny, if it turns out to be yours — for communities are all that’s substantial about the world.”

“All the rest is hoop-la.”