The Novels of English 202

socs badge 2016-17When I receive Linda’s SoCS prompt has a lot to do with how I respond to the challenge. That’s because Linda says that, in addition to not editing, there should be minimal planning in our responses. That’s harder to do than Linda thinks, especially when I look at the prompt during lunch on a work day. Try as I might, the sequestered voices in my head keep interrupting my thought process with “we could do this” and “or we could do that.” I keep them contained, but they often bust out of their confines while I’m driving home. One day, I actually drew a diagram in my head while driving home that I later used in the post. On days like today, Friday, November 4th, when I’m on vacation, I look at the prompt and if I start to get ideas, I start writing.

Except, I was trying to get some things done around the house, and that whole “minimal planning” thing became problematic. Actually, I guess it already was problematic, it became a problem. My first thought was to use the word ‘novel’ in a unique way. Get it? I started thinking about how to structure that. Maybe I’d could have a conversation at the bar. Maybe I could – stop planning!!! It wasn’t working. There were no self-discipline representatives telling the voices to “shut up and let us work” because there really wasn’t any work to do. Besides, Linda wants us to have fun. Well, she says to “enjoy” but it’s basically the same thing.

Your Friday prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is: “novel.” Use it any way you’d like. Enjoy!”

I decided to throw the voices a curve ball. When I started writing, I thought about other people who had told me to “enjoy” something that one wouldn’t expect to be fun. As I walked by a book case in our family room, I remembered English 202, a.k.a. American Literature II, at West Virginia University (WVU) back in 1974. In English 201, the first part of American Lit, we read some dreadful stuff. Moby Dick, the Norton Critical Edition. That book is twice as long and 10 times as boring as Moby Dick the boring story edition.

Woodburn Hall – Language Arts building at WVU – English and Scientific German taught here.

The only people in the universe capable of making Herman Melville harder to read than Herman himself were the folks at Norton. The only author capable of making you look forward to reading Moby Dick is Benjamin Franklin, whom we also read that first semester. We also read Hemingway and Emerson.

That class made Scientific German, with words like: ‘destillationskondensators’ and ‘abgestuften zylinder’ seem interesting.

Anyway, when we started the second semester, we were told that we would focus on contemporary American authors. We were told to select an author that we liked and the professor would give us an assignment based on that selection. I chose Kurt Vonnegut. I have to admit, it wasn’t so much a love of his novels that drove me to that choice, it was the fact that I had recently read Slaughterhouse Five. My assignment was to compare and contrast three novels by Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse Five – Cat’s Cradle – Breakfast of Champions

Those were the three books I chose. I won’t bore you by trying to retrieve my thoughts from the ether, but I do remember the assignment being easy. Vonnegut is easy to read, and there are many signature bits of his writing style that can be found in those three novels.

Breakfast of Champions was relatively new. It may have still been on the Bestseller list. It was a fun read, and I credit that book, more than any, as shaping the thought process required in stream of consciousness writing. Vonnegut was the master of clearing stuff out of his head and having it land on a page in a reasonable order.

Breakfast of Champions also influenced the artists in my head. Vonnegut pointed out that he illustrated the novel himself. One illustration was his drawing of an anus, which resembled nothing more than a large asterisk. I thought that was clever. 12 years later, when I was working as a consultant for a Big-8 firm, I adopted that illustration to highlight problematic, yes, that’s the right word this time, people in meetings. It was perfect. We always had to make a list of people in a meeting. If someone rose to the top of that particular scale, I’d simply put an asterisk next to their name. If they saw my work-papers, they were usually impressed. Only Kurt and I knew what I meant.

From Breakfast of Champions
From Breakfast of Champions

71 thoughts on “The Novels of English 202

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  1. Now this is a drawing that always makes me day. I started to read Vonnegut early and have never stopped. My favourite of his is “Galápagos” in which he uses the asterisk in another way: he places it before the names of those who are about to die. I hope your coworkers are accounted for. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you’re a fan. I think I’ve read every book of his. I also saw him in person. My wife & daughter took me to a lecture / interview featuring him and moderated by a local author I admire. For the record, I stopped using this method once I took a job inside one organization :)

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      1. Most of them are worth a second reading. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten around to round two, but I’d start with Sirens of Titan. Also, if you like his work you might like Tom Robbins. I personally think he is better but he has a similar way of pointing out the absurdities of life. Jitterbug Perfume and Still Life With Woodpecker are some of his best.

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    1. That’s a great point, Judy. All ghe benefits of being grown-up :) I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, but I do have a healthy pile next to the bed. I’m pretty sure bond are Norton critical editions.

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  2. I’ve read Moby Dick twice. Love it. Of course, I never read the Norton Critical edition. I’m scratching my head over how they could footnote a book that is its own footnote. I think I’ve read all of Vonnegut’s early work, but liked him less as time went on and didn’t read his late work. My husband was the other way, and liked him better with each book. :D Love this SoC!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I think I might have enjoyed Moby Dick the first time I read it. That was in high school. I didn’t enjoy Franklin at all. I like Vonnegut’s earlier books more, but I’ve read them all.

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  3. Ha, interesting. I remember going through a Vonnegut phase in college (though I didn’t read more than three of his books), and I gave Moby Dick a try at one point. Never finished it. The detailed descriptions of whaling and other digressions left me wondering why it was so widely hailed. And this is coming from someone who has always enjoyed other classic authors, including Dickens and Verne, so it’s not as if I always demand (or even necessarily want) the conversational style of, well, a Vonnegut or any other contemporary writer.

    Every now and then, though, I’m tempted to try again, usually after someone has assured me I’m missing out. Maybe someday — who knows? Meanwhile, I enjoyed your post, Dan. Stay novel.

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    1. Thanks Paul. I was thinking that you were going to miss an opportunity, but you snuck it in at the end. I have to say, I’m not surprised that you liked Verne ;) I noticed in a course description a few years ago that the folks at WVU had substituted Billy Budd for Moby Dick in the reading list for American Literature II. A much better choice in my book. I tried reading it again, when I had a subscription to some American Classics promotion. I didn’t get far, but it looked good on the shelf.

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  4. Vonnegut and Steinbeck are two of my all-time favourite American authors.
    I think I’ve read just about everything Vonnegut has published too. Very few writers have ever made me laugh out loud in public while reading them – Vonnegut was one of them.
    Did you ever see the film adaptation they did of Mother Night with Nick Nolte? For me it was the only one of his works that was done right on the big screen.

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    1. Thanks Norm. I haven’t seen that. I’m going to try to find it though. I saw a small theater group do a production of Cat’s Cradle and it was amazing. Vonnegut was my escape in college I read several books while commuting (bus) for graduate school.

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  5. I have not read any of the books you mentioned, Dan, but I certainly know what it’s like to slog through a book that society has deemed a “masterpiece” and a “must-read”, only to discover it’s absolutely horrible. I was so excited to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables”. It was supposed to be a this wonderful gothic horror story. Perfect for me! Right? No. No, it was not. I considered it the worst book I’d ever read… until I picked up Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”. “Gothic romance” indeed! I still can’t believe that people speak of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love as if it’s some fairy tale for the ages. Good Lord, the character of Heathcliff was a despicable, abusive cad! I’ve read a lot of books (including Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” in high school — YUCK) and Wuthering Heights still manages to top my list of the worst. Thankfully I’ve never had any inkling to go anywhere near Moby Dick.

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      1. Oh, agreed! The teacher can make a lot of difference. I hated Shakespeare in high school, but once I graduated and could read for leisure, I reread a lot of plays with a dictionary beside me (so I could actually understand what was being said), and the truth is, in a lot of instances, I don’t think the teacher had even understood what the story was about! I saw characters like Hamlet in a whole new light because what I was taught was going on in the story simply wasn’t what was going on at all. After my “House of the Seven Gables” flop, I was ready to write off Hawthorne completely, but finally managed to set my prejudice aside to read “The Scarlet Letter”. And lo and behold, it was a fantastic piece of literature. So I guess authors — even of the classics — just have a few duds like everyone else!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. With the possible exception of Moby Dick, I think the right teacher can make anything interesting.

          It’s funny that you mention the dictionary thing. My wife has a very old set that she uses to figure out what a word meant when it was used.

          Then again, you having something in common with my wife is not a surprise.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow I am so lucky we did not read Moby Dick in my American Lit class of I may not have American Lit as my minor! As for Kurt, I love him too.. although I have not read Breakfast of Champions and now I have tooo! I have to see that illustration for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. AHAHAHAHA! That’s fantastic! Well done!
    I still have two of my Norton anthologies. I loved Norton, but not Melville, and certainly not Moby Dick. I’da kept more Norton’s, but for cryin out loud, I had to buy at least one every semester, and I needed the resale monies!

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    1. Thanks. As I recall, you’d also need some heavy-duty bookcases. That book was ginormous. I was worried that you might go upside my head and tell me how Moby Dick is actually a good holiday story (I couldn’t resist). I guess there are people who get the story, but oh my goodness I just wanted to Stan myself in the temple.

      At least you aren’t buying textbooks at today’s prices.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They now have rental programs. Rentals! The Mister’s books are 95% rentals and they’re about 1/3 the cost!
        Also, tee-hee, I can’t resist commenting on poor Stan. Per your phone, his name is now a violent act. Does he have an asterisk next to his name? LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Of all the required classic reading, I enjoyed John Steinbeck (The Red Pony and The Pearl), lots of Shakespeare but mainly the comedies, Charles Dickens (Great Expectations and his holiday tale), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and Zelda.) Now, don’t get upset but I did like Moby Dick and Melville’s descriptions of the sea have passed through my mind a few times. . .
    I took modern literature and liked Kurt Vonnegut (favorite and most memorable book was “Slaughterhouse Five”), Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey. They all had interesting characters and the last two wrote books which made fantastic movies. (“Catch-22” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”)
    Now, when I push the asterisk sign, I must make sure the reader knows I mean it as stars! :)

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  9. Such a great post, Dan. A coworker used to ‘win people over’ by telling them, they had a asterisk next to their name and they were #1 on his #2 list. They smiled. He and I looked at each other with the secret look and just cracked up. I still love asterisks.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. My husband is or was a fan of Vonnegut – particularly Breakfast of Champions, but I’ve never read any of his stuff. Can see how the asterisk caught on in your work’s labelling processes! Lots of ways, obviously, of identifying assholes… !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I really enjoyed that book. It’s the first book of his that I read, but I bought it after Breakfast of Champions was published. When I was taking the pictures, I noticed the references to the “Author of the bestselling…” along with the price, $1.25.

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