If you’ve kept up with Open Culture for a while, you know that Kurt Vonnegut could write a good letter, whether home from World War II, to high school students, to other writers, to John F. Kennedy, or to the future. You also know that Benedict Cumberbatch can give a good reading, whether of literature like The Metamorphosis and Moby Dick or more directly personal words from Alan Turing or a Guantánamo prisoner. It must have seemed like only a matter of time, then, before this master reader of letters (in the broad sense) took on the work of a master letter-writer, and here we have a clip of Cumberbatch at the Hay Festival 2014 reading a Vonnegut letter — and a particularly impassioned Vonnegut letter at that.
“I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school,” Vonnegut writes to Charles McCarthy, head of the school board at North Dakota’s Drake High School, who in 1973 ordered its copies of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels burned for their “obscene language.” “Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.”
After assuring McCarthy that “my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news,” Vonnegut goes on to describe himself not as one of the “ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people” that McCarthy may imagine, but as a “large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work.”
And as for the products of that labor, “if you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life.” Vonnegut acknowledges the school’s right to decide what books its students should read, “but it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.”
More that forty years have passed, and hardly anywhere does Slaughterhouse-Five now count as controversial reading material. But Vonnegut’s words to McCarthy, which you can read in full at Letters of Note web site (or in the Letters of Note book), still bear not just repeating but breathing new life into by a performer like Cumberbatch, one of the most respected of his generation. At the Letters Live Youtube channel, you can see his interpretation of more letters originally written by Sol LeWitt, William Safire, and other people known primarily for their work, but the reading of whose letters make them, in Vonnegut’s words, “very real.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.