It wasn’t his idea. But Corey Michael Dalton — editor of children’s magazines, writer of fiction, admirer of Kurt Vonnegut — said to his cohorts at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library that if they couldn’t find anyone else to live for a week in a cell made of books, well, then, they could come back and ask him.
Anyone who’s ever worked for a non-profit knows that saying such a thing is tantamount to volunteering and paying for the party favors. And so Dalton will find himself, beginning Sept. 30 at noon, living 24 hours a day in a makeshift cell abutting the library’s front window, surrounded on two or three sides by walls made of banned books. The week-long stunt is tied to both Banned Books Week, a national venture celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and to the Vonnegut Library’s efforts to bring attention to a partial ban of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by a Missouri school district.
Dalton is, for the record, gainfully employed, as an editor of three children’s magazines published by The Saturday Evening Post Society. But he was one of the few in the network of Vonnegut enthusiasts and volunteers who could clear an entire week from his schedule. “Given that I’m an editor and writer for magazines, and that I just graduated from Butler with my MFA and I’m shopping around manuscripts, they figured I’d be a good fit, because I could actually, for one thing, get work done,” he told me one afternoon outside Mo’Joes, just down the road from the library. “And I work for The Saturday Evening Post, which published a lot of Vonnegut’s short stories, so there’s a classic tie-in.”
Dalton will be released Oct. 6 at noon, by which time he’ll have, according to plan, written a short story, blogged about his experience, listened to a variety of authors reading from banned books (including Dan Wakefield and Michael Moore), sat still for lectures by local experts (including Jon Eller, director of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies) and witnessed the handover of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sagamore of the Wabash from the ACLU of Indiana (represented by Judy O’Bannon) to the library. Check the sidebar for more details, delivered in a less breathless manner; all events are free and open to the public.
Anyone who’s ever been in prison knows how valuable visiting hours are — and Dalton will get to pack in a little more companionship into expanded hours of operation (noon-7 p.m. daily) at the library during Banned Books Week.
Visitors will be encouraged to sign a petition addressed to the school board in Republic, Mo., which continues to limit access to Slaughterhouse-Five. The book was banned outright by the school board in July 2011, in response to which the Vonnegut Library offered free copies to any student at Republic High School. Seventy-five students took up the library’s offer; 75 more donated books remain available.
In September 2011, the school board downgraded the ban, allowing students to take out the book from the school library, but only with parental consent. The Vonnegut Library maintains that this partial ban — which places the book in exile in a secured section of the school library — continues to infringe on First Amendment rights.
Call the “Locked in with Vonnegut” stunt a mix of practical, direct action (petitions, education via lectures, Dalton’s blog and the like) and indirect, magical thinking of the best kind (i.e. man imitates imprisoned book, locking himself away to better raise awareness of book’s plight). “Part of it is the absurdity of the whole thing, which is kind of like Vonnegut’s fiction, which can be wacky and absurd. This is such a stupid thing to do that it seems like Vonnegut would appreciate it,” said Dalton, a scruffy, bespectacled sort, at home in flannel, who looks more like a typical MFA grad than a children’s magazine editor.
Dalton said that, given all his involvement with the Vonnegut Library, he’s becoming known at “the Vonnegut guy. And that’s fine; there’s a lot worse things you could be. But I don’t think anyone at the library thinks Vonnegut was a saint. He was just a dude who told interesting stories. What connects with me, in his books, is the basic decency he puts forth, a 'can’t we all just get along with each other’ message. That’s his sunny message at the heart of it all, but then there’s all this darkness on top of it, where his characters are self-loathing and hate humanity. They know that they’re supposed to be good to each other and that’s what they’re trying to do, but life fucks you up.” Dalton says he’s most into Vonnegut’s earlier work, those books that have a “sci-fi element.”
Dalton’s core concern — and the reason why he’s spending a week of his life in the library — is with censorship, in general. “As a writer and editor and guy who works on kids’ magazines and tries to encourage kids to be into literature, it’s shocking that books are still banned for rather arbitrary reasons. We’re focused on Slaughterhouse-Five, but To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the 10 most challenged books every year, and it’s because people say it’s racist. Well, anyone who’s read the book would know it’s the opposite of racist. But, yes, racist things happen in the book to illustrate racism.”
Dalton notes that he’ll retain access to at least some creature comforts during his incarceration. “There’s a shower in the basement, so anytime I go to the bathroom or shower, I’ll put up a little sign that says, “Back in five,” because there’s going to be a webcam.” But won’t that be a sort of censorship of the shower experience? “Yeah, I’ll be censoring it; it won’t be like German Big Brother. That’s my choice, and no one wants to see that, anyway.”
His cell will be sparsely furnished: a MacBook, a military cot and, Dalton hopes, a coffeemaker. “And there’s a creepy statue of Vonnegut in the space that’s kind of heavy and probably won’t be moved. So I’m going to have a skeletal Vonnegut looking over me. I hope I can sleep at night.” Does he have plans to exercise? “Yeah, wouldn’t it be hilarious to have a stationary bike? I’m sure someone has one that’s has clothes hanging on it. That’s something to contemplate because I’m afraid all my muscles will atrophy, and I’ll just be a blob of Jell-O.”
Will there be a curtain to give Dalton a little privacy while slumbering? “There’s a blind, and I’m going to try to not put it down, but we’ll see if Bourbon Street allows me to sleep.” Is he worried about sleeping alone, undefended? “Not really. I’m more worried about being mooned. Which is fine! We’re going to put a sign in the window to briefly explain why I’m doing this, the circumstance of the book banning in Republic, the fact that books are still being banned from our high schools in this day and age. So if people come up and bang on the window, I won’t have to try to mime to them what’s going on. I can just point to the sign, they can read, and then if they want to flip me off, then whatever.
A selected calendar
(all events free and at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, 340 N. Senate Ave., unless otherwise noted; head to vonnegutlibrary.org for the latest)
Sept. 30, noon
Julia Whitehead, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library executive director, talks about the Republic, Mo., ban of Slaughterhouse-Five and attempts to remove all barriers to accessing the book
Sept. 30, 3 p.m.
Screening of a film based on one of Vonnegut’s masterworks (more info here) at Tilt Studio (49 W. Maryland St.)
Oct. 2, 6:30 p.m.
Talk by Jon Eller, director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI, concerning connections between Bradbury and Vonnegut; followed by 7:15 p.m. screening of a film based on one of Bradbury’s masterworks (more info here)
Oct. 5, 6 p.m.
Judy O’Bannon presents Vonnegut’s Sagamore of the Wabash, currently held by the ACLU of Indiana, to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
Who’s reading to Corey?
Sept. 30: Dan Wakefield, from the ending to The Great Gatsby
Oct. 1: Michael Dahlie (A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living), book TBA
Oct. 2: Michael Moore, from Slaughterhouse-Five, via Skype; Jon Eller, from Fahrenheit 451
Oct. 3: Sarah Ockler, from her own banned book, Twenty Boy Summer, via Skype; Alex Mattingly, manager of Indy Reads Books, from The Grapes of Wrath
Oct. 4: Ben H. Winters (Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters) from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Oct. 5: Judy O’Bannon, from To Kill a Mockingbird