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Banned Books Week: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Takes a Prisoner

An interview with the Dean of Libraries at DePauw on the controversial titles that he sees changing education



While taking a much-deserved rest and overlooking Lake Michigan, the Dean of Libraries at DePauw University, Rick Provine, took some time to chat with Nuvo about a major upcoming event at the Vonnegut Library: he'll be a prisoner, living inside the window and surrounded by banned books. Provine will blog his thoughts during the event, more than proving his commitment to the cause.

Nuvo: This is a fantastic event planned - how did this event materialize and how long was spent planning?

Provine: I do believe this is the 4th year, at least, for this event. Many meetings brought forth spectacular ideas for engaging the community. And while I am unaware of its genesis, I do know there are other fabulous supporters who lived in a prison of banned books before me. Hugh Vandivier, for example, an alumni of Wabash, produced a memorable blog for the event. I love thinking of the rivalry between our schools, but at the end of the day, we're both here to support the cause we are passionate about. Corey Michael Dalton, an editor and an alumni of DePauw was also imprisoned in the window of the library for a banned books week. These men proved their strength and kept their wits about them in the window. I plan to try to do the same once in. Planning itself goes on all year and from an academic lens, I think this year's events are fabulous. And as an academic, I'm always thinking of ways to engage the audience in higher education and I know the rest of the planning team is, as well, and I think they have.

Nuvo: What remains so important about the discussion of banned books that you feel this current climate of readers needs to know?

Provine: My biggest fear is that people will forget. We need to talk about censorship, in all its forms, so people never forget. Books are often challenged in rooms and schools, and public libraries, and we have to raise awareness of those challenges. They shouldn't be kept quiet. Censorship doesn't stop – so the need to raise awareness won't either. Those who wish to limit our access to materials, they won't stop. So neither will we. I believe that people, not just kids, often may be unaware their access to reading materials and other information is being restricted. This is why I'll keep supporting the mission of banned books weeks year round.

Nuvo: Why do you think the call to ban a book is still such an immediate and visceral response to such everyday occurrences such as sexuality and profanity?

Provine: I think it's that some people feel so strongly in their beliefs, that they feel those beliefs should be shared by others, by everyone even. There's a such a naivete and short-sightedness there, that it flabbergasts me. They don't seem to understand the freedoms they enjoy come from books, documents, words. I don't think hypocrisy is the right word since there's that short-sightedness and unawareness in their actions - they're just not connecting the dots. I want to help those people explore and understand what it is they're missing, if I can.

Nuvo: What could you say to someone who possibly does not understand the threat behind the banning of works?

Provine: I understand [the threat] so well, at such a basic and fundamental level, and have internalized it to such a point, that it's sometimes difficult to explain to someone who has no idea, at all, why censorship is just such a terrible idea. We thrive on connecting new information to and/or from old information. Those who ban, I suspect, are just not readers. Vonnegut once said something like the cure for censorship, or the banning of books, is to not put anyone on a school board or in a position of educational power who 's not a reader and I think he's right. If we could staff those types of positions with literary advocates, we'd have no problem. Those who want to ban things the most I just don't think have read or viewed the material they wish to ban all the way through, or thoroughly enough to understand the consequences of their desired action. We, as a whole, as a society don't grow by re-consuming old ideas. New ideas, new lenses, and the new connections we make will help us grow.

Nuvo: Do you feel Gov. Daniels response to Howard Zinn's work is still relevant, even perhaps harmful to state progress? [Daniels' words about Zinn and his work, as well as several more complex angles of the original argument can be found here

Provine: Yes. It is absolutely still relevant. It has to be relelvant. It has to matter. We need to make it relevant, and to never forget. Censorship is not okay - and we need to keep making this relevant since it was a few years ago and people do forget. I don't want those who favor censorship to think they can just brush those kinds of ideas under the rug and get away with it, perhaps hoping we'll forget and they can just wait long enough and we'll stop fighting censorship, give up and go away. I want us to work together to make sure that doesn't happen.

Nuvo: Why do you feel it's important to read banned books aloud?

Provine: Voice really animates a work and can bring it to life. Many people can learn from such a performance, too and drawing attention to a banned work in any way that can help someone to understand the work is always a good idea. Sometimes we can take in things through the ears that we cannot take in through the eyes. I have always valued that there are multiple ways to learn, to share, and the arts, and performance art, is only one of those ways. The arts can resonate with people in different ways and in other ways information alone might not be able to.

Nuvo: Do you feel the launch of Banned Books Week has, since 1982, lived up to its mission?

Provine: Yes, but we've still not stopped censorship as much as I would have liked. We're not backing down, that's for sure, and I think Banned Books Week has definitely lived up to its mission in that sense and we have raised awareness around the world of an issue I feel very passionate about. There's definitely a preaching to the choir element present and we have to remain tireless since there are many good people under a tremendous amount of pressure. I don't have to deal with censorship on a daily basis, but I know there are people who do. So, I have to remain even more diligent that I don't become dispassionate.

Nuvo: What are your favorite banned books to discuss and protect?

Provine: I do have a list that I was asked for at the last planning meeting - and I included five items close to my heart. I will also talk about these at the event. I tried to get a broad sampling of items for Banned Books Week. Things I know and love, something different, and have some fun with it. 1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. Hard to do a list for this event without my favorite KV book! 2. The Stupids by Harry Allard. Something for the children. I read this to mine. 3. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. All the ingredients for the rebellious and the curious. Ah, youth. 4. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Something for the poetry lovers. Whitman lost his job over this when it was released, but is now regarded as one of the great American poets. 5. Bobby Brown by Frank Zappa. Something for the music lovers. Frank had a lot in common with Kurt. Both had similar worldviews and personalities. Both say things that are enhanced by language as opposed to obscured by it, and know sometimes the jokes involved with their high level of parody, are often lost to the uninitiated.

Nuvo: Have you noticed any changes, good or bad, over the years, surrounding both the banning of books in the US? Indiana? Banned Books Week itself? AND How has the Vonnegut Library played a key role in bringing this issue to light?

Provine: I won't pretend to be an expert and discuss statistical trends and patterns, but now there are a few websites I use to gather data [such as]. And the Vonnegut Library itself does a great job of compiling data. The Vonnegut Library did something really cool and refused to roll over when they heard that a school had banned Slaughterhouse Five. Instead they offered to mail a copy of this classic, at no charge, to any student who wanted to read it. They were explicit, and remain so – that is, they stand by our freedom to read, by our access to information and ideas.

Nuvo: Do you feel the symbolism of the banned book prison will resonate with audiences. How so?

Provine: I will say this event is the library's biggest – biggest in terms of attendance and memberships, as well as donations. I really think it will resonate both with those who have attended in the past and those who are coming for the first time. There are plenty of events, something for everyone, that will allow the library to even do this again next year and continue with all of the good work they do. Rights are being limited all over the world, and while it's sometimes difficult to stand up to that, I really think that voracious readers like myself dislike seeing anything they love taken away.

Nuvo: What challenges do you face as Dean of Libraries as Depauw?

I have the luxury of working in higher education and we don't currently have to face much censorship. That's not to say we won't in the future, but right now, it's not an issue. Which means it has to be more of an issue than ever – so we don't become complacent because it might be easier to say “that's not my job” or “that's not my problem” and that's not true for everyone. There is livelihood at stake for many of those who've been victims of censorship, in many fields, so I feel we have to support one another, not just in academia but also in society at large. At the very least, I can be diligent in offering vocal support for those fighting the main battles right now.

Nuvo: Who are some of the advocates for banned books that you see as really helping the cause to bring to light the real reasons why books are banned? Who do you see as adversaries?

Provine: The Vonnegut Library is, surely, one of the top advocates for eliminating censorship, and bringing to light the instances of challenged books around the US. The American Library Association and the Office of Intellectual Freedom are all on the right path to helping eliminate censorship. Much of what they do is constantly address book challenges and help maintain access to information. These are all people on the front lines, working hard to stop those who wish to impose their beliefs on others. I do think, as a parent for example, if you want to ban a book in your home, then you have that right. You do not, however, have the right to ban that book for my child, in my home. I appreciate the individuals who help us to find solutions, which means not censoring books, so we have access to more information, not less. Vonnegut himself, and now the Library, ares the perfect advocates to help fight the number of banned books in the US and Indiana. I don't know the exact number, but I do know it's too high. Indianapolis has come a long way in the last 30 years, I think, but our fight against censorship in all forms continues.


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