There are a lot of books which are submitted as books that every young person should be required to read. The Catcher in the Rye is the most popular (with good reason: everyone should read that as well), as well as A Separate Peace, Romeo and Juliet, and all those other classics that you read every year in your English classes.
Earlier this year though, I read a book called Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (author of Slaughterhouse-Five). It was the sort of book that made me want to go and shout from the rooftops- “Come read this! Everyone needs to read this! Come one, come all!” I wanted to go and buy copies for the entire school, for all the incoming freshmen.
My edition of the book begins with an introduction by the author, and starts with a line I think every high schooler should learn by heart. “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral. I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s what we should all know.
How many people do you know who are pretending to be someone? In a high school, filled with people trying to fit in and stand out (which are, in truth, more similar concepts than most people realize), everyone is pretending. You could argue everyone in the world is pretending, in one way or another.
Throughout the book, we meet a number of characters pretending, some pretending to be people who are pretending to be people. No one is a bigger pretender than our main character, Mr. Howard Campbell, Jr, who is described by Vonnegut as “a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.” Campbell is an American turned Nazi propagandist, waiting on death row in Jerusalem as the book opens. Throughout the novel, the concept of “pretending” comes up over and over again; there are spies of all sorts, people lying for their own self-interest, and there are almost no characters in the entire story who are as they seem to be. By the end of the book, you will be questioning whether or not Campbell is evil, and whether or not what he pretended to be was what he was, or if he was what he pretended to be.
Besides the questions the book grapples with, the story is also highly amusing and very interesting, with spy plots, war drama, and some highly amusing characters. Regardless of whether or not you’re interested in the books thematic leanings, you can still enjoy it as a good story.
Do I think this is the greatest book of all time? No. Heck, I don’t even think it’s Vonnegut’s best book (that honor goes to Slaughterhouse-Five), but I still think it’s a book worth recommending, especially for young people. I also think it is a book that is often forgotten in the long list of great books people are told to read, and therefore might not ever reach the minds of youth. I think the lesson is one that still resonates more than half a century later.
So, even if you never read this book, remember those first lines.
“We must be careful about what we pretend to be.”