Slaughterhouse-Five, which turns 50 this year, is one of those books that in my reading life has undergone a real evolution, by which I can track my own changes. Reading it as a preteen, I was tickled, perhaps dazzled, but undeniably quite confused. Reading it as a teenager, I was duly impressed by the time loops, formal shenanigans, and general post-modernity, but my burgeoning pretensions wouldn't let me rate it as high as Mother Night or Cat's Cradle or The Sirens of Titan (masterpieces all) because SH-5 was the bestseller, the one that made Vonnegut a household name, rich man, counterculture seer, Playboy Interview subject. Reading it in my twenties, at a time when I was eager to slough off my immature infatuations, I concluded that it really wasn't all that. A book for bright kids, not for thoughtful adults having thoughtful thoughts about thinky things. Reading it in my thirties, I suddenly saw deep sadnesses I'd been too callow to suss out before; there's more here than I really knew, I mused to myself, stroking my beard. Reading it in my forties, I gave in and wept the sweet and salty tear of young middle age, realizing how old I'd grown with this book. I'm 53 this year, and it's time to read it again. I'm almost scared of what the book will do to me now.
I'm not inclined to such totalizing pronouncements as "a book every American should read," because that's something people say who have no actual ideas to impart. But hey, really, what could it hurt?