When I was young I remember there being a huss and fuss about the Harry Potter series, but before I continue I just now realize I started a sentence with the phrase “when I was young.”
At any rate, I was discussing the book series with a friend and she described a massive Harry Potter book burning that was a social function at her church when she was younger. After I cringed and popped something in my neck while muttering something in tongues, I was able to think on this and remember that this was no real shock anymore. I recall one instance in which a man on the local news was interviewed a s apparent concerned over whether his children should read Harry Potter. Spare you the details, he wasn’t comfortable. It’s no surprise to discover this given the numbers that state that Harry Potter was the most banned book in the years of 2000-2009. But this article is not about Harry Potter, though that essay shall and will be written at some glorious point. Instead I would like to turn my attention to the novel that contains this important and wonderful passage:
“Listen. Easy now,” said the old man gently. “I know, I know. You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”
I regret terribly that such a lesson is not stamped on the interior of every book ever published and tattooed on the arm of every babe that born to this world. This quote derives from a short yet essential novel by Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451, named because Bradbury believed that was the temperature at which paper bursts into flame, is one of the most essential texts on battling censorship and tyranny, but also of the important value of knowledge to our society.
Taking place in the not too distant future, America has become a world surrounded by alienation and mass culture. Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman that burns books, for in this new age a firemen’s role has been reversed for the task of starting fires, rather than putting them out. I have read the book up to three times now and each time I am reminded of how lovely the book is. I hate the ending, but Bradbury in my experience never could write a really satisfying or unambiguous ending. Nevertheless Fahrenheit 451 is worth your time if for no other reason there has never been a better time to understand the hubbub.
Ray Bradbury despised and feared most of the modern media that has now become the background noise of our day to day lives. He hated radio, did not care for television, he thought movies were a waste of time, and that comic books were nothing but mass produced pulp that would leave a child brain dead. While the man was entitled to these opinions, as is the reader, I might recommend you keep that last opinion to yourself when next you visit a Comic Con. The central argument of Fahrenheit 451 is dystopia, a pattern of literature that has assumed pressing concern to much of the young adult fiction that floods the market place. And while there are some good books such as the Hunger Games Series that adequately set the tone of totalitarian willpower that dominates the genre, very few have gotten to the realistic portrayal. As much as Katniss (I hope I spelled that correctly or else the Tween hordes shall come in droves) is a rebel that stands up to system that seeks to dominate her people, her very presence as a hero seeks to disrupt the very notion of dystopia. The idea of the genre is that it serves as the antithesis of Utopia, the vision of the world in which mankind has attained perfect peace in the world. This entails that every aspect of society serve as a means of crushing the individual spirit of those that exist in the society, both through psychological and physical intimidation or indoctrination. If such is the case The Hunger Games cannot be properly called a dystopian works, though if you disagree by all means please let me know.
The world of Fahrenheit 451 is defined by a profound feeling of helplessness. Citizens are noted to sporadically commit suicide, and in the first few pages of the novel Guy Montag’s own wife is found with a bottle of sleeping pills in her stomach. Along with this psychological torment is the constant presence of mass culture, for Mildred, after she is necessitated by a snakelike machine shoved down her throat, immediately sits in the televisor room where three wall size television sets blast “the Family” away until she has no original thoughts and barely recognizes her own husband.
This in turn leads to one of the most important passages of the novel. Now brace yourselves, this is gonna be a long quote:
Faber examined Montag’s thin, blue-jowled face. “How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?”
“I don’t know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help.”
“You’re a hopeless romantic,” said Faber. “It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the `parlour families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. Of course you couldn’t know this, of course you still can’t understand what I mean when I say all this. You are intuitively right, that’s what counts. Three things are missing.
“Number one: Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. Even fireworks, for all their prettiness, come from the chemistry of the earth. Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality. Do you know the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, the giant wrestler, whose strength was incredible so long as he stood firmly on the earth? But when he was held, rootless, in mid-air, by Hercules, he perished easily. If there isn’t something in that legend for us today, in this city, in our time, then I am completely insane. Well, there we have the first thing I said we needed. Quality, texture of information.”
“And the second?”
“Oh, but we’ve plenty of off-hours.”
“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
Bradbury’s novel speaks to a true romantic nature for the importance of books upon the individual mind and spirit. It is not just that books are useful tools that grow our intellects, there are bastions of true intellectual beauty where the soul can breathe deeply, and the mind is afforded the agency to stop to ask, is everything in my reality as it should be. Some might suggest that this notion is too romantic, and that in the age of e-books and online pdfs, what is the point of finding merit in hardbound books anymore.
To that, my dear reader, I must protest and cite another great writer, one that led me to Bradbury in the first place. Stephen King spoke in a brief interview that while our knowledge of books as they were is changing, the idea of “the book” will remain the same. It doesn’t matter whether you read Nietzsche’s The Antichrist on a Nook or in paper, as long as the translation is reliable enough, you’ll understand the man’s ideas. Whether you read To Kill a Mockingbird on an ipad a cell phone or a first edition hardback, though if you do on the last one I hate you in ways I can’t possible describe, you’ll still read one of the most important American literary documents in history. The reason for this, is that you’ll be reading. Period.
Books, short stories, essays, poetry, sacred texts, mythology, philosophy, all exist to challenge ignorance. It is as Faber states at the first quote cited here, if no one bothers to challenge you, then you shall never grow. I am an adult with a bachelor’s degree in English, working on a masters and I cannot for the life of me find a better quote for this new age. Or one that seems so pertinent. I’ll recite again for you:
You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.
Yes Fahrenheit is a science fiction novel about burning books, and such a topic is crucial to discuss, and the fact that the novel has been banned is perhaps one of the best lessons in irony. My goal is always to offer alternative explanations or analyses given to the public, and in the case of Fahrenheit while the issues of censorship are pertinent and timeless, another lesson this book has to offer is that it is not a crime to be ignorant, but it is crucial that one acknowledge ignorance lest it become your defining character.
If you were curious, I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t actually know the temperature at which paper ignites. The reason is because I’m not very well schooled in chemistry, and because there are many different varieties of paper, each of them burning at a different degree.
I just realized Burn, Baby Burn would have been a great title. Better one anyway. Well, live and learn.
All quotes taken from the novel Fahrenheit 451 were taken from the Del Ray 50th anniversary paperback edition.