Saturday, September 25, 2010

Banned Book Week-- Fahrenheit 451

If you haven't read the book, please be advised-- spoilers abound.

There's a blaze of light in every word. It doesn't matter which you heard- the holy or the broken hallelujah. Leonard Cohen

Fahrenheit 451 begins with a fire of destruction. Our hero's (Guy Montag) job is to burn books, and he finds a great deal of pleasure watching them burn. But he is also beginning to wonder what the point of it all is. He is especially shaken when a woman elects to burn herself and her books together, rather than letting the firemen burn her books and haul her off to a sanitarium. This event takes place just after his wife's near overdose and his encounter with a questioning neighbor. Guy is a man on the cusp of decision, and events conspire to make him seriously consider the life he is leading.

He has been hoarding books for awhile, but hasn't actually brought himself to read any of them. But he becomes curious about their content, wondering what would compel someone to die rather than give them up. So he does read, and he is changed by it. So much so that he attracts the attention of his government. Eventually, he is reduced to fugitive status, and joins a band of people outside the city dedicated to preserving the content of books, if not the physical books themselves.

It is the preservers of books just outside the city that have always captured my imagination in this book. It is easy to read Fahrenheit 451 simply as a treatise against state sponsored censorship, and obviously it is that, but that's not what captures my imagination. What intrigues me is the impossibility of utterly destroying the books.

True confession time. I spent a huge amount of time studying religious history, which often involves burning of texts deemed heretical. It is amazing how many books people have tried to wipe off the earth that are being studied today. Whether they were read in secret for centuries or rediscovered after being lost for centuries, many texts have survived long after their persecutors have shuffled off this mortal coil. Aristotle was rediscovered by Europe during the Crusades, having been studied by learned Muslims for years. The Nag Hammadi texts were discovered buried in Egypt, lending current scholars insight into the development of Christianity.

And even in Bradbury's imagined future, the books have not 'gone gently into that good night.' (Dylan Thomas) People are hiding them, and almost more importantly, people remember them. Books seem to be immortal in ways humans cannot even imagine themselves becoming! They endure despite all our attempts to destroy them.

So to all you out there trying to ban or burn books, I have to ask: What is it that you think you are going to accomplish?

The titles you have been working so hard to eliminate will most likely still be read in 100 years or more. Some books have been contested for centuries, and yet they are still with us. You can't win this fight.

Bradbury shows us this by ending with a group of people dedicated to passing down books orally to preserve the memory. And that this brilliant treatise about the dangers and futility of burning books is in the top 100 banned books is ridiculous. Especially considering that some of the people challenging it think it actually advocates burning the Bible! (I mean, seriously, did you even read Fahrenheit 451).

One last thought: My mother forbade me to read exactly one book. This book was available in my school libraries and many of my friends read it as teenagers; it was also by an author I read avidly. Because my mother did not ban many books from our household, and because she had actually read the book, I did not pick it up until I was in my mid-twenties.* If you are worried about ideas your children might get from the books they are reading, take the opportunity to discuss the books with them, or at least explain why you have reservations. Because, really, the books aren't going anywhere.


  1. Great post!

    Though now I'm dying to know what one book were you not allowed to read?

  2. Gerald's Game. I don't think she would have even said anything to me about it, except that she knew I read a lot of Stephen King.

  3. Hey, very insightful post! I really liked your focus on the fugitives, and how they echo back to Faber's earlier comments that it's not the books themselves but the ideas that are powerful and life-changing.

    Your research on heretical book burnings sounds really interesting as well. I posted about this book for Banned Books week too: and I remember thinking that it would have been cool if people in the book were writing down scraps of remembered texts through the years, as graffiti, buried in time capsules or using some sort of code.

  4. I don't know if you've seen the movie. It isn't great, certainly not as good as the book (because movies rarely are) but it is interesting. I had already read the book a couple of times by the time I finally saw the film.

    I remember asking myself, What book would I memorize if I lived in this dystopian world?

    I never have come up with an answer and doubt I ever will because as soon as I try to embrace one title there are so many others demanding my attention.