In April 2007, the blog of New York City’s 92nd Street Y posted a brilliant piece by Kurt Vonnegut, who had passed away just a couple of days earlier. Recorded on May 4, 1970, at the Y, Vonnegut read from an early version of his seminal novel Breakfast of Champions, three years before its publication, dropping a few f-bombs and talking briefly about adult topics (so it might not be appropriate for little ones).
“This is a world premiere of a book called Breakfast of Champions, and not even my wife has seen it; I've simply passed the rumor around that it exists,” Vonnegut said. “So here we go. Uh, it's a novel.” Then, he began to read from the manuscript:
“My name is Dwayne Hoover and I am an experiment by the creator of the universe. I am the only creature in the entire universe who has free will. I am the only creature who has to figure out what to do next and why. Everybody else is a robot. I am pooped. I wish I were a robot too. It is perfectly exhausting having to reason all the time in a universe I never made. The experiment with me began on the planet Earth. All around me were machines who appeared to be thinking and planning and worrying as much as I was, but they were no more reasonable than the Pontiac automobiles I used to sell. No more puzzled or adaptable than the music boxes my wife Celia used to collect. Celia was a robot too ... programmed to collect music boxes, among other things.”
It goes on for about a half hour from there. It takes me back to when I saw Vonnegut speak, along with Joseph Heller and William Styron, at Florida State in the late ’90s. I asked him: “So if you were to start writing today, would you still write novels?” After asking me to repeat my question so he could hear it properly, Vonnegut replied, “Nobody reads books anymore. I’d write movies, probably. Or I don’t know, maybe not. Who cares?” He looked at Heller, who nodded. “Next question.” (You can read a few quotes from that colloquium here.)
A version of this story ran in 2009; it has been updated for 2022.