“A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.”
According to my Kindle version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, that little bit above has been highlighted 94 times.
Amazon’s public highlighting function is their way of bringing back that fun little extra you got when you bought a used book. Remember finding the underlined passages and notes in the margins? They were like messages from previous readers. You didn’t know who they were but for a special moment you shared their intellect.
A stranger revealed him or herself in those charming notes. They communicated their feelings about a passage, or passed on information to you, the reader further on down the road. The practice may have despoiled an otherwise pristine book, but often it was helpful. Like if the previous reader explained an idea that you would have otherwise misunderstood or not even noticed at all. The Kindle highlight functionality is the best facsimile we have of those long lost marginal connections.
At any rate, 94 people highlighted that paragraph up there. I would have too if I’d read the Kindle manual and knew how to do it, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that I love that paragraph as much as the highlighters did. What they missed, though, was the rest of the passage, which to me is just as important and I would have highlighted it, had I the power to do so. But I don’t, so I didn’t. Here it is:
“The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, ‘Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!’ ”
Does that not just about make you cry? It does me. The first bit is common knowledge for the most part. We all know talented people are underappreciated because, well, because we have Justin Bieber and we just don’t need anybody else. But this second bit is infinitely more interesting because, considering the amount of hangovers in the world, we must have a lot of talented people. And they’re all frustrated.
What’s amazing is that Vonnegut understood this frustration even though he was in the class of world’s champions. He was up there. How did he know about the muddling talent pool down below? How was it he could feel the pain?
Who knows? But that is why I love him. He was up there, but he stayed connected. He paid attention. I’m sure he was approachable. I might have had a drink with him at the Lonestar if the situation arose. We probably liked the same music. At least once we got drunk and started tap dancing on the coffee table anyway.
world’s champion exhibitionist
P.S. Here’s some more great text I found in Bluebeard:
“And what is literature, Rabo,” he said, “but an insider’s newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the universe but a few molecules who have the disease called ‘thought’.”
And further on:
“Celeste and her friends are back in school, and she asked me this morning what I knew about the universe. She has to write a theme about it.
“Why ask me?” I said.
“You read The New York Times every day,” she said.
So I told her that the universe began as an eleven-pound strawberry which exploded at seven minutes past midnight three trillion years ago.
“I’m serious,” she said.
“All I can tell you is what I read in The New York Times,” I said.
How can you not love him?
This essay was first posted July 17, 2013 at The Singularity Watch/Lange Unfocused blog.