It was mid-July and I was in San Diego, visiting my parents with my 10-year-old daughter, Naomi. We spent much of our time on the beach, but on the last day of our vacation, I was able to sneak off alone to the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. It just so happened that the artist Tim Youd — a guest of honor of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library during Banned Books Week, Sept. 21-27 — was at work when I walked in the door.
READ: More info on Banned Books Week programming at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
Youd was retyping Raymond Chandler's mystery novel The Long Goodbye, using the same manual typewriter as Chandler, an Olivetti Studio 44. The museum is located close to Chandler's former home.
Here's Youd's thing: He types out an entire novel on one sheet of paper. Actually he types on doubled sheets. The top sheet gets coated with typewriter ink from top to bottom; the bottom one receives indentations and ink where the keys break through, because even the strongest sheet of typing paper can only withstand so much. Once finished, he removes the sheets and frames them side by side. Sometimes, the bottom sheet is nearly clean; at others, both sheets are covered in ink.
Youd hopes to type 100 novels over five years. He started the project in early 2013. In September of that year, he made his first trip to the Vonnegut Library, where he typed Vonnegut's novels Breakfast of Champions and Jailbird on the late author's tool of choice, the Smith Corona Coronamatic 2200.
This September, things will be a little different. Youd will type Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 while living in the library during Banned Books Week. Then, taking a cue from that novel's firemen — who start fires, rather than putting them out, burning books and other samizdat media — he'll burn the result.
Bradbury was one of the country's most insightful writers on censorship. But Vonnegut had his own issues with the powers that be. Across the country his books have been and continue to be banned by schools and libraries.
"After Slaughterhouse Five and another book called Twenty Boy Summer were banned from a high school library in rural Missouri in 2011, the Vonnegut Library responded by sending free Vonnegut books to students who requested them at that high school," says Julia Whitehead, Executive Director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
"It was our first taste of censorship as an organization," she continues. "But, of course, Kurt had dealt with it before. So we decided to make sure that celebrating the freedom to read was a larger part of our mission. We tried to do what we could on a national level — communicating with free speech organizations and civil liberties groups around the country — while doing what we could locally."
That year, the library began commemorating Banned Books Week, which was launched nationally in 1982 "in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries," according to the project's website. Whitehead, who met Youd through a mutual friend — the director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California — thinks he's an ideal partner on Banned Books programming. And he's going all in, as it were: Youd will be the third person to live inside of the library's "prison" of books during Banned Books Week, where he'll be at the center of programming including Tim's Bedtime Stories, when local celebrities will read to Youd from books that have been banned.
"Tim's work is unique and shows a personal relationship with both the author and the work," says Whitehead. "I like both the performance aspect of his work and the tangible piece of art that is created at the end of his process. I like that he interacts with those observing his process. He is knowledgeable about art, literature and so many other things, which will make him an ideal candidate for living in the Vonnegut Library during Banned Books Week. We get more visitors that week than any other week of our year. Vonnegut would like that Tim experienced different kinds of careers before focusing on his art. Tim is keeping the words and stories of various authors alive through his work. We love that."
The Right Stuff
Youd's modus operandi is to retype the novels of particular authors where they originally composed said works. And he employs the actual typewriters — or when those are unavailable, the same brands of typewriters — used by the authors.
After about a twenty-minute retyping performance at the San Diego museum, during which time the gallery crowd grows to near capacity, Youd sits down with curator Jill Dawsey for a public conversation. As they talk I take a look at one of the diptychs on the wall — the one of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Much of the typing paper of the top sheet has been keyed away. The bottom sheet is smeared, punched, keyed, what have you, with blotches of black ink — random juxtapositions of words typed one-on-top-of-another. The way the paper is punched through reminds me of the last scene in the movie made of the book, in which the test pilot Chuck Yeager attempts to punch his F-104 through the atmosphere into space.
Of course, Youd didn't intend for the work to come out this way. It just did, based on the typewriter he was using, the amount of pressure applied by the keys on the paper, etc. When we talk after the crowd has dissipated, he tells me he doesn't deliberately represent key scenes from novels he types, though he's happy if the final product inspires the imagination.