It is one of the universal truths in life that, at some point, perhaps at every point, we need advice. It is an unequivocal part of the human condition, a condition Kurt Vonnegut understood very well. Sometimes the most difficult thing in the world is to ask for help and advice. With this collection, you do not have to ask. As well as being a celebrated novelist, Vonnegut also carved out a particular niche as a highly sought after speaker at College graduations, giving what are known as commencement addresses, a particular irony as he never attended college himself.
If this isn’t nice, what is? Advice to the young collects a selection of these addresses, nine in all, as chosen by his friend and fellow writer, Dan Wakefield. Wakefield also provides an effective introduction which doubles as a history lesson in Vonnegut’s fascinating life and how he coped with fame following the publication of the beautifully satirical Slaughterhouse Five.
The collection takes its title from the speech Vonnegut gave to the graduating class of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, on May 15, 1999. During the closing of the speech, he asks the audience for a favour:
I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents, and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.
How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?
Hold up your hands, please.
Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.
If this isn’t nice, what is?
Vonnegut imparts the importance of recognising your teachers in all their forms, the educators who seek to help you better yourself, which of course, whether he realised it or not, Vonnegut can be counted amongst. He believed in the importance of community, and of course in some regards, our many teachers are the backbone of any community.
There’s something for everyone in the speeches in this collection, and Wakefield has done a fine job of not only selecting the speeches, but also introducing Vonnegut to a new audience who may only know him in passing or from the teaching of Slaughterhouse Five in schools. The man was more than a writer. He was also a grounded philosopher, an advocate of humanism and a poetic sage of happiness. His speech, “How to make money and find Love” opens the collection and Vonnegut draws parallels with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and the ceremony of graduation itself by referencing the book’s ending as “its mission unknown”, essentially letting the class know that the world they are about to enter can be as infinite as the universe.
He also gives the answer to the speech’s title; for Vonnegut the secret to money and love is:
I will tell you how to make money: Work very hard.
I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time.
Learn the words to the latest songs.
The collection is an inspiring read and cements Vonnegut as one of the most important voices of any generation.
My advice? Take his advice.
David M Graham