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Let my novels go: Banned Books Week at Vonnegut Library

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Re-imagined covers by Matt Sommers (Grendel), Mab Graves (Lolita) and Pam Wishbow (Slaughterhouse-Five) are part of Banned Books Recovered, an art show and sale at Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
  • Re-imagined covers by Matt Sommers (Grendel), Mab Graves (Lolita) and Pam Wishbow (Slaughterhouse-Five) are part of Banned Books Recovered, an art show and sale at Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

When September rolls around each year, unsuspecting artists and writers may want to run for cover - or risk being asked to spend a week living in the window of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. In what is becoming an annual tradition for the nationwide Banned Books Week, Hugh Vandivier, a writer who interviewed Kurt Vonnegut in 2002 and is a longtime supporter of the library, will spend September 22 - 28 lounging in a cell made of books.

He has no idea what to expect. "Will it be a performance piece? Will it be the ultimate examination of Big Brother since there's a webcam set up? I think it's more like a panda cam, because the pandas aren't always in the shot," he says.

Vandivier, an online editor for Angie's List, whose work primarily focuses on editing and non-fiction writing and reportage, is excited to focus on a finishing one of the assignments during his stay: a short piece of fiction. He has also worked in Indy's visual arts community, which prompted him to suggest an exhibition of reimagined covers for banned books.

A short list of some of those covers demonstrates the breadth of books that have been banned: from Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, to Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are and Judy Blume's teen favorite Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Young adult books get special attention this year with a talk by Chris Finan, author and president of American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. People can get easily offended by just about anything, says Vandivier, and that's why it's important that parents, rather than a book ban, act as gatekeepers. "Parents should let kids explore things but also be prepared when children are exposed to things they don't understand."

The week also includes a First Amendment Film Fest and a set of nightly readings, or "bedtime stories" for Vandivier. He's upgrading the library cell this year with a futon instead of a cot and an exercise bike. He might want the latter to burn off a bit of the Jockamo Slaughterhouse Five pizza he intends to eat while in captivity. Many of the local eateries that will deliver food also serve beer, so Vandivier says he may send out an occasional message, "and if someone wants to join me for an impromptu symposium, they are welcome."

Even Governor Mike Pence is in on the action, issuing a state proclamation earlier this summer formally declaring Banned Books Week in Indiana. First Lady Karen Pence will read from the sometimes-banned children's favorite Harriet the Spy on September 25.

Former governor and Purdue president Mitch Daniels also has a presence at Banned Books Week, though he probably didn't intend to. The storm surrounding his emails regarding the late professor and author Howard Zinn inspired the library to include a Zinn night in their line-up on Thursday, Sept. 26, including readings from A People's History of the United States and films about the book and Zinn's life.

"Howard Zinn was one of our first honorary board members," explains Julia Whitehead, executive director of the library. "We wanted to make it clear to anyone who's interested in learning more about him what his life and his life's work were about. If people come in and they disagree with Howard Zinn, well, that's great, because that opens the discussion. But if you restrict access to information about his books and his life, then you can't have the discussion. And what do we have then?"

Vonnegut cared deeply about an open dialogue, says Whitehead. "Whether the topic was religion, public school funding, war, or the environment - he didn't want important issues to just fade away. He thought that if we're not addressing them, then we're not progressing. You have to have the conversation."

Vandivier agrees. "In the broader sense, too many times censorship or the rush to ban something has more to do with silencing people whose opinions and beliefs are different than ours. That's where we get into the danger of only hearing opinions that we agree with. I think most of the time you'll find that if you have good beliefs and values and you're challenged on those beliefs and values, it strengthens them rather than weakens them."

Banned Books Week
All events are free and at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, unless otherwise noted. Library hours are 12-9 p.m, Sept. 22-27 and 12-5 p.m. Sept. 28.

Tim Youd: Breakfast of Champions performance (through Sept. 20)
Conceptual typist Youd had been hammering out the entirety of Breakfast on a single page, running it through the typewriter over and over again, since Sept. 6; he plans to finish by Sept. 20. Youd's other typing performances including Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn (on a Brooklyn outside of Miller's boyhood home) and Charles Bukowski's Post Office (on the stairs of an L.A. post office).

Banned Books Recovered art show and sale (Sept. 22-28)
Featuring re-imagined covers of banned books executed by local artists.

Hugh's Bedtime Stories
Notable authors will read to the imprisoned Vandivier at 6 p.m. each night. The lineup: columnist Dan Carpenter (Sept. 22); author and son of Kurt, Mark Vonnegut (Sept. 23, via Google Hangout); state representative Christina Hale (Sept. 24); First Lady Karen Pence (Sept. 25); author James Alexander Thom and Unitarian Universalist Reverend Bill Breeden (Sept. 26); actress Constance Macy (Sept. 27)

First Amendment Film Fest
Slaughterhouse-Five (Sept. 23), Good Night and Good Luck (Sept. 24), Howl (Sept. 27); each film starts following Hugh's Bedtime Story (approx. 6:15 p.m.)

Howard Zinn Day (Sept. 26)
Following the readings by Thom and Breeden (see above) from Zinn's work, the library will show The People Speak, a documentary based on Zinn's People's History of the United States (which Purdue president Mitch Daniels attempted to remove from K-12 libraries and reading lists during his governorship). A lunch screening of the documentary You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is also planned.

Chris Finan: Corrupting Our Kids: The Attack on YA Literature (Sept. 25, 7 p.m. at the Indianapolis Public Library's Clowes Auditorium)
Finan is president of American Booksellers for Free Expression, which is coordinating discounts on banned titles, a virtual read-out of banned and challenged titles and other activities during the week.

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