Vonnegut’s Audio Reboot

Actors bring this author to new generation

Legendary author Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 at age 84, an impressive run for someone whose odds for a long, full life were about as poor as one could possibly imagine.

Vonnegut cheated death several times over, a reality that would inform the gallows humor, stinging social criticism and bountiful humanity of his classic novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which is now an audiobook from Audible Studios.

Technology is helping his work survive for a new generation of readers at a time when old-fashioned book stores are disappearing from the American landscape.

Many audiobooks are available for free from local libraries, and their collections often include all the latest releases.

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The descendant of German immigrants, a 22-year-old Vonnegut fought for the U.S. Army against German forces in the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest conflict for U.S. forces among all World War II operations.

Vonnegut, an infantry scout, survived that attack, but was captured by the Germans. While he and other prisoners of war were being transported in train cars, the trains were bombed by the UK’s Royal Air Force, killing about 150 men. But Vonnegut made it to Dresden, which was firebombed by Allied Forces two months later, killing tens of thousands.

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In addition to all that, Vonnegut joked in 2006 that he might sue the makers of Pall Mall cigarettes for false advertising. He noted that he’d been smoking since he was a preteen, and now “I’m 83 years old. The lying bastards! (They) promised to kill me.”

But Vonnegut survived it all, although he didn’t achieve widespread critical and commercial acclaim as a writer until the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five” in early 1969, when he was 46.

Now, a new generation can tap into Vonnegut — without ever opening a book. James Franco narrates the Audible Studios production of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and that’s not surprising for such an artistic jack of all trades. The novel is satirical, but it’s science fiction, too, and autobiographical. It’s right in the wheelhouse of an actor-writer-director who seems desperate to avoid being pigeonholed.

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As for whether narrator should be added to that list of hyphenates, well, your mileage may vary. You can hear a sample on the book’s Audible page, where Franco’s delivery might not quite match up with what you heard in your head when you were assigned to read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in high school or college. Which hopefully you were, because it deserves all of its many accolades.

But Vonnegut’s repertoire is certainly not limited to “Slaughterhouse-Five.” (And we’re not talking about his cameo in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School,” but it’s fun to mention all the same.)

Novels such as “Breakfast of Champions,” “Slapstick,” “The Sirens of Titan” and “Mother Night” are all worthy reads, and as with all Vonnegut, none is a chore to get through. His prose is among the liveliest and most relatable of any great author. Yes, it’s a bit out there at times, and thank goodness it is.

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is just one of more than a dozen Vonnegut works Audible Studios has produced over the past year, including a reading of “Breakfast of Champions” by John Malkovich. (You already know it’s awesome. It’s John Malkovich.)

All the audiobooks are unabridged, of course, because abridgements are a crime against humanity. You’re getting every word the author wrote, just like reading it on the page, but it’s conveniently being narrated to you (which means you can now be stuck in traffic — with Kurt Vonnegut).

It’s true that we distill information differently when it’s spoken rather than read. Also, the performance of the narrator can affect one’s interpretation. Yet audiobooks can help younger readers access great literature.

You’re getting every word the author wrote, just like reading it on the page.

In a time when we’re all connected 24/7 to our smartphones and tablets, audiobooks in particular make it easy to “read” on the go. Most apps, including Audible’s own smartphone app, even let you speed up the narration if you like, in case you absorb information faster than the norm.

But the practice of listening to digital audiobooks is not limited to Amazon’s Audible platform. (No offense, Jeff Bezos. Please don’t send a drone our way.) Many audiobooks are available for free from local libraries, and their collections often include all the latest releases.

You can download these audiobooks directly to a phone or tablet and keep them, generally, for up to 21 days. All you need is a valid library account. When the lending period is up, the file automatically deletes itself from your device. No late fees!

With all the entertainment available at our fingertips — hundreds of television channels, video games, the Internet, the “Real Housewives of Cleveland,” whatever — it might seem hard to find time to read.

Technology is actually making it easier, and a Vonnegut audiobook isn’t a bad place to start.

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