Bethany Atchison did not expect to find anything besides a compelling satire between the covers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions when she recently bought the book at the Valley Thrift Store in Evendale.
Her particular copy of Vonnegut’s beloved novel is gorgeous: a dark blue leather-bound cover with golden text and flourishes, gilded pages and only a minor dent, likely dealt by a careless shopper or employee. The spine has never been cracked down the center — the first telling sign of a well-worn book. It cost her 69 cents.
Adding a copy of Black Beauty and some cute blouses, she paid $12 altogether with exact change. She was excited to take the book home, open it for the first time and sign her name in the front page, just like she’s done with nearly every book in her ever-growing home library.
Her fiancé Jeff instinctively gave her a felt-tipped pen upon seeing her unpack new books from her shopping bag at home. She opened her copy of Breakfast of Champions, pen in hand. But, as it turns out, someone already beat her to the signature.
The book was not autographed by its previous owner, but by its author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — his John Hancock is unmistakable. It looks like Vonnegut drew an irreparably knotted shoestring on the page, akin to his trademark illustrations scattered through his writing. The Easton Press certificate of authenticity included with the book didn’t hurt its credibility, either.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh good, I’m always strapped for cash,’ ” Atchison says. The 24-year-old Mason native is a substitute teacher at Linden Grove School and a director at Kirkwood Camp in Wilmington, Ohio, during the summer.
She also nannies. A quick search of online auctions shows the book to be valued between $550 and $900. Nice, nice, very nice.
At the time of our interview Atchison had not read the novel. It’s rare to find someone who will actually read a Vonnegut story for the first time on a book signed by its author. And, hey, she didn’t have to pay the equivalent of a rent check to get it.
Originally published in 1973, Breakfast of Champions is centered on writer Kilgore Trout, a fictitious projection of the author, and a mentally unbalanced business owner, Dwayne Hoover. Chaos ensues as Hoover runs amok after reading one of Trout’s science fiction novels that claims the reader is the only human with free will, while everyone else is a mindless robot. Hoover accepts it as truth. Vonnegut’s humorous narrative presence is dry and dark, impressing upon the reader to appreciate beauty and happiness and to accept the tumultuous, uncontrollable forces in our lives with dignity and wit.
This particular signed copy acquired by Atchison was printed in 2001 and signed by Vonnegut May 23 of the same year. Vonnegut would have likely been working on material for his final collection of essays, A Man Without a Country.
This is one instance where a book is literally worth dozens of Kindles. Vonnegut, a candid Luddite, would appreciate this angle.
Will Beth sell the book?
“I’m fairly predictable with books,” Atchison says. “I’ll keep it.”
She speculates it would make a perfect heirloom.
She plans to house the signed novel dead center on her bookshelf. There it will gain that delicious scent, faintly reminiscent of vanilla: the smell of a good old book. She has so many books that stacks of books are becoming bookshelves of their own. Her cats are book lovers, too — they sleep on them.
“One could imagine such a thing happening to a character in a Vonnegut book,” says Julia A. Whitehead, executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. “I think Vonnegut would have loved to have heard this story.”
The library houses priceless artifacts from the celebrated writer’s life, including rejection letters from publishers, his own typewriter and even his last pack of cigarettes.
“It’s interesting to me to see the value of his works increase as time goes by,” Whitehead says. “When we first started the Vonnegut Library, it seemed that many people didn’t recognize the value of Kurt’s work (both the rare book value as well as the academic/psychological values), but as we met more true fans of Vonnegut, we realized that so many people around the globe identified with his words in important ways. I’ve had multiple people say to me that Kurt Vonnegut saved their lives as Vonnegut’s words made a difference to them at a time when they needed a certain kind of connection to make it through certain life events. Vonnegut was that connection.”
For more information on the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, visit vonnegutlibrary.org.