I’ve been a practitioner of various forms of meditation — beginning with Transcendental Meditation at 17 which evolved into a Buddhist practice in my 20s, a Jewdhist approach in my 30s and 40s and now back to Buddhist in my 50s — for most of my life and while I never fell for the full-blown TM you-can-bring-world-peace-(and learn to fly too) bullshit I found the practice helpful.
As I was reading Dan Wakefield’s introduction to the third section of his Kurt Vonnegut: Letters I discovered that Vonnegut had not shared my view. Wakefield wrote:
[Vonnegut] satirized the stylish popularity of Eastern mediation, saying we had the same thing in the West — reading short stories, which also lowered your heart rate and freed you mind from concerns. He said short stories were “Buddhist catnaps.” p. 76
We are too quick to dismiss the importance of coincidence in our lives, seeking to find meaning in the odd juxtapositions that we notice. Isaac Asimov celebrated coincidences in one of his science essays for Fantasy & Science Fiction when he noted that the at one point, the undiscovered moons of Saturn actually matched up to the correct number of children of that Roman god. I agree with Asimov, coincidences surround us and they have no meaning.
So, I laughed when I came across the passage concerning Vonnegut’s comparison of Eastern meditation and Western short stories because at the same time I check out Wakefield’s book, I also picked up Wendell Berry’s A Place In Time and Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy two excellent collections of short stories (I can’t remember the last such collection I read) that I thoroughly enjoyed while I’d Gone Thinking.
I don’t know that I’ve been enjoying any catnaps, Buddhist or otherwise, while reading, but I do find myself saddened that reading short stories is no longer a regular part of the American literary landscape. Yes, there are collections and the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery magazines, but outside of a handful of general magazines, there is no longer a place for writers to share a few hundred or a few thousand words with us.
Instead, we have 20-minute plays on television and occasionally, very occasionally, a bit of storytelling on radio.