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memoirist and pediatrician

Mark Vonnegut: memoirist and pediatrician

Mark Vonnegut, son of novelist Kurt, has written extensively about mental illness.

It seems only natural that Mark Vonnegut, the eldest child of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., would become a writer, though his subject would have been harder to predict. In “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So,’’ Vonnegut recounts his struggles with bipolar disorder. Vonnegut, a pediatrician, lives with his family in Milton.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

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VONNEGUT: I’m about to start “The Information’’ by Martin Amis. Someone told me a story about a young writer who read the first chapter of “The Information’’ and went into some kind of psychotic break. I have to find out what that’s about.

BOOKS: What were you reading before?

VONNEGUT: Books by Nathaniel Philbrick, such as “Mayflower,’’ which is about King Philip’s War in New England, when the Wampanoags decided they’d had enough of white people. We bought the only house in Dartmouth the Wampanoags didn’t burn and are fixing it up.

BOOKS: Are you a history fan?

VONNEGUT: I like history. I’m an eclectic reader. Reading overall has been basically life-saving for me.

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BOOKS: How so?

VONNEGUT: I was a very lonely kid. When I started reading books I realized I wasn’t so alone.

BOOKS: What kind of role has reading played in your mental health?

VONNEGUT: My first breakdown I chose very badly in terms of reading: “The Brothers Karamazov’’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which is so heavy, and Jack London’s “The Sea-Wolf,’’ which has one of the most evil characters of all time. These books were so vivid and alive to me, it was not the best thing. I stumbled on them just as my stress tolerance wore out.

BOOKS: When was this?

VONNEGUT: I was in my 20s. I was living in a commune in the woods in British Columbia. We each brought a library with us of our favorites by boat and then we carried them in on our backs. We talked about books a lot. It wasn’t all drugs. Eventually I didn’t know what planet I was on. By then reading anything was out of the question.

BOOKS: Do you remember what was the first book you read while you were hospitalized?

VONNEGUT: “The Red and the Black’’ by Stendhal, then “The Red Badge of Courage’’ by Stephen Crane. I think I was into colors for a while. I also reread “Great Expectations.’’ Dickens was very calming.

BOOKS: What was it like to crack that Stendhal?

VONNEGUT: Great. I felt like I might survive. Reading acts like a compass. If I can read, make sense of it, and talk to people about it then I’m moving in the right direction.

BOOKS: Can you tell by what a person’s reading whether they are having mental health problems?

VONNEGUT: I think so. If you think what you are reading is the most important book you ever read, it’s like when the radio and TV start talking to you, it’s not so good.

BOOKS: Do you find there are a lot of mentally ill characters in literature?

VONNEGUT: Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye’’ is a typical adolescent, but he’s also profoundly disturbed. Ahab in “Moby-Dick’’ by Herman Melville and Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny’’ by Herman Wouk. There are a lot of good nuts in literature.

BOOKS: Do you have a favorite?

VONNEGUT: I really love Ignatius J. Reilly in “A Confederacy of Dunces’’ by John Kennedy Toole - how hard he worked at trying to figure things out.

BOOKS: How does reading figure into being a doctor?

VONNEGUT: When I’m talking to a teenager who’s never read a book he’s gotten into, I’ll say, “Have you tried this or that?’’ I’ll give them books like “The Catcher in the Rye’’ and say, “Maybe this will do it for you.’’

BOOKS: Do you think reading is good for your emotional health?

VONNEGUT: I think the flexibility that you get from reading or appreciating music or art, if you can’t do that you are missing a bit of resilience that might save your life in a way.

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