A Story About Kurt Vonnegut Books

I only got to meet Kurt Vonnegut once, my favorite fiction writer, that is if you consider Kilgore Trout and Tralfamadore to be fiction. Billy Pilgrim certainly was not. He was right there next to Vonnegut witnessing the horror and absurdity of the fire bombing of Dresden. His book in 1969 about that massacre proved to be his masterpiece.

I have first editions of most of his books, with many of them signed, but no inscriptions, which are much rarer. If you started collecting them early on, as I did, they were very affordable, in the $30 range & not very hard to find. But getting the signature in person is the best, as I wasn’t doing this as an investment, but as a way to sort of physically connect to the genius of this dear man.

It was in May 1993 when the Stanford students Speakers Bureau brought him to campus. The tickets were general admission and my seat ended up being near the front of the balcony, far away, but with a good view of the man at the podium. He told the students, “You have been put on Earth to fart around.” A practical thinker, he said, “If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have nerve enough to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, of course he had to say something about computers, which he didn’t use in his writing. “Don’t you know the only purpose of the machine is to knock you down to minimum wage, no matter how smart you are?” He admitted he owned a computer. Apple gave him a Macintosh and then put him in their annual report two days later. He only used it to play chess. I don’t remember any gasps in the audience to any of these remarks, just laughter. The students probably thought he was an old fart anyway.

From my perch in the balcony, I began to think I’d need to be satisfied with my distant view of the man. But at the end there was an amazing announcement that Mr. Vonnegut would be available for a while in a nearby building. And off I went! The night before I had gone through my collection to choose what to bring to his talk. At first I thought about bringing three books, but then I could hear him saying, “Three?? Get out of here! Get a job and make some money on your own.” So I settled on two, a first edition of Breakfast of Champions in nearly brand new condition and of course, his masterpiece, which I had bought at Know Knew Books, a used bookstore perhaps one mile from where he spoke, on the edge of the campus. Both were true first editions, first printings.

Two ended up being acceptable to him. He was friendly in a slightly curmudgeonly way. I had been wondering whether he would sign his name in the way I had seen it in other signed copies of his books. The 1976 250 copy First Delacorte numbered edition had come with a gold facsimile of his signature embossed on the front cover, with it then signed in ink on the numbered first page inside. I barely made the cut with number 248. You could actually make out Kurt with this signature and the V in his last name and the T at the end were clearly visible. But it had evolved after that, more toward being a work of art, with the asterisk added in the 80’s or early 90’s. Would he really be able to do that with people lined up for their turn? Well yes, he did! And especially boldly on Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps because he recognized its importance and relative rarity, nearly filling up the first page with his signature, which had really become part of his identity! I suppose he had a business manager, so he never had to sign any checks, which would never be large enough for such a statement. 📚

Watch in the timeline for the pictures I’ve taken of these two books, asterisks and all.