Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the great-grandson of German immigrants who were part of the vast migration of Germans to the Midwest from 1820 to 1870. At his father’s insistence, he studied chemistry at Cornell University from 1940 to 1942. In 1944, he enlisted in the army, was deployed Europe, and was captured after the Battle of the Bulge. He and other prisoners of war were interned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany; during the Allied firebombing of that city, he took shelter in a meat locker. Vonnegut later wrote about the experience in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which was a critical and commercial success. His other novels include Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos.
The following is from Palm Sunday, a collection of some of Kurt Vonnegut’s reviews, speeches, and essays that he called “an autobiographical collage”. This excerpt is from a speech he gave in 1976 at the dedication of a new library at Connecticut College, New London.
“The name of this speech is ‘The Noodle Factory.’ Ten percent of you may be wondering by now why I called this speech ‘The Noodle Factory.’ One hundred percent of me is delighted to explain: It is very simple. The title is an acknowledgment of the fact that most people can’t read, or, in any event, don’t enjoy it much.
“Reading is such a difficult thing to do that most of our time in school is spent learning how to do that alone. If we had spent as much time at ice skating as we have with reading, we would all be stars with the Hollywood Ice Capades instead of bookworms now.
“As you know, it isn’t enough for a reader to pick up the little symbols from a page with his eyes, or, as is the case with a blind person, with his fingertips. Once we get those symbols inside our heads and in the proper order, then we must clothe them in gloom or joy or apathy, in love or hate, in anger or peacefulness, or however the author intended them to be clothed. In order to be good readers, we must even recognize irony—which is when a writer says one thing and really means another, contradicting himself in what he believes to be a beguiling cause.
“We even have to get jokes! God help us if we miss a joke.
“So most people give up on reading.
“So—for all the jubilation this new library will generate in the community at large, this building might as well be a noodle factory. Noodles are okay. Libraries are okay. They are rather neutral good news.
“This noble stone-and-steel bookmobile is no bland noodle factory to us, of course, to this band of readers—we few, we happy few. Because we love books so much, this has to be one of the most buxom, hilarious days of our lives.
“Are we foolish to be so elated by books in an age of movies and television? Not in the least, for our ability to read, when combined with libraries like this one, makes us the freest of women and men—and children.
“Anyway—because we are readers, we don’t have to wait for some communications executive to decide what we should think about next—and how we should think about it. We can fill our heads with anything from aardvarks to zucchinis—at any time of night or day.
“Even more magically, perhaps, we readers can communicate with each other across space and time so cheaply. Ink and paper are as cheap as sand or water, almost. No board of directors has to convene in order to decide whether we can afford to write down this or that. I myself once staged the end of the world on two pieces of paper—at a cost of less than a penny, including wear and tear on my typewriter ribbon and the seat of my pants.
“Film is a hideously expensive way to tell anybody anything— and I include television and all that. What is more: Healthy people exposed to too many actors and too much scenery may wake up some morning to find their own imaginations dead.
“The only cure I know of is a library—and the ability to read. Reading exercises the imagination—tempts it to go from strength to strength. So much for that.
“It would surely be shapely on an occasion like this if something holy were said. Unfortunately, the speaker you have hired is a Unitarian. I know almost nothing about holy things.
“The language is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness. Literature is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness. Our freedom to say or write whatever we please in this country is holy to me. It is a rare privilege not only on this planet, but throughout the universe, I suspect. And it is not something somebody gave us. It is a thing we give to ourselves.
“Meditation is holy to me, for I believe that all the secrets of existence and nonexistence are somewhere in our heads— or in other people’s heads. And I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.
“This to me is a miracle. The motto of this noble library is the motto of all meditators throughout all time: ‘Quiet, please.’ Thus ends my speech. I thank you for your attention.”