What Do ‘Breakfast of Champions’ and ‘The Joy of Sex’ Have in Common?
Fifty years ago this month, the best-selling novel and the best-selling nonfiction title in the country had something unusual in common: They were both illustrated.
The novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions,” was filled with more than 100 felt-tip line drawings by the author — a Hertz truck, underwear, a Holiday Inn sign, T-shirts, a mailbox, a beaver, tombstones and so on.
The book atop the nonfiction list was Alex Comfort’s “The Joy of Sex,” the “coffee-table Kama Sutra of the baby-boom generation,” and it was filled with drawings of a couple having energetic sex in many different ways — a young man “looking as if his day job were playing bongos with the Lovin’ Spoonful” and “a comely raven-haired lady who just can’t seem to stop smiling, and little wonder, though she’s surely going to have a crick in her neck after all this,” as Christopher Buckley later wrote.
In her Times review of “Breakfast of Champions,” the critic Nora Sayre pointedly did not mention the artwork, instead confining herself to the prose: “In this novel Vonnegut is treating himself to a giant brainflush, clearing his head by throwing out acquired ideas, and also liberating some of the characters from his previous books.”
Coincidentally, Sayre also wrote about “The Joy of Sex” for The Times, including it in a round-up of sex manuals (which was headlined “Ahh!”). Here, though, she was most definitely interested in the graphics.
“The lavish illustrations are gripping,” she wrote, “but the participants’ faces aren’t very appealing, so face-fetishists may be disappointed.” Still, she found it “rather literate” and “awash with whimsy.”
In 1974, the Book Review’s gossip column — yes, there really was such a thing — relayed the following anecdote: “We heard about the following scene from an on-the-spot observer: A middle-aged, Park Avenue-looking lady of dignified mien approached the clerk in a large Manhattan bookstore. ‘I understand,’ she said, ‘that you have “The Joy of Sex” — unillustrated.’” There was no such thing, of course; the art in “The Joy of Sex,” as the Book Review noted, “may have had just a little to do with its phenomenal sales.”
That wasn’t true of “Breakfast of Champions,” which soared onto the best-seller lists on its literary merits alone. In one of his last interviews, which appeared in U.S. Airways magazine, Vonnegut said, “I’ve been drawing all my life, just as a hobby, without really having shows or anything. It’s just an agreeable thing to do, and I recommend it to everybody. I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly, because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow.”
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