Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury: "There are worse crimes than burning books."

[Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died this week at age 91. The Guardian's obituary called him “peerless,” which is as good a place to begin reckoning our loss as any.

I wrote about Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451 during Banned Book Week in October 2008. A good lead-in to that post (reprinted below) is a Bradbury quote that's making the rounds today: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” After all, in Bradbury's dystopic portrait of an anti-intellectual world, it was reading that was banned, not books per se. Book-burning wasn't so much an act of government censorship as simply the benign act of eliminating an attractive nuisance.]

I sometimes think Banned Book Week, which comes to an official end today, is like National Secretary's Day: It's a short interval into which we compress our quiet, sheepish appreciation for something indispensable that we should feel grateful for every day of the year.

We're finishing up with a classic from 1953: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. For many, this is the iconic banned book--a banned book about book-banning, or at least book-burning. But Bradbury himself insists--heatedly, at times--that his classic work isn't about government censorship/book-banning at all; it's about how the culture of television destroys the culture of reading and literature. (And that was in 1953!)

One disagrees with the likes of Ray Bradbury at one's peril, but while the author may be the last word on what he intended, he doesn't get the final say on what his book meant.

Of course, most people would certainly agree with Bradbury's point: It doesn't take jack-booted agents of the state to curb our access to ideas; sometimes it can happen simply because we're too busy being entertained to take an interest. In his late-80's book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that we spent much of the 20th Century worrying that the oppression of Big Brother in 1984 might be our future, when all along we should have been worrying about sleepwalking into the narcotized emptiness of Huxley's Brave New World. After all, the governor of Alaska can't name a book or magazine she reads, but she would never think of herself as uninformed. Sometimes the agents of control wear Tina Fey glasses and wink at the camera.

In fact, here's a painful little bit of irony: Out of curiosity, I plugged the phrase "Why is Fahrenheit 451 banned?" into The top-ranked answer, from a site called WikiAnswers, was this:

Fahrenheit 451 was banned due to its controversial manner and questionable themes.

And that's it. That's the entire answer. Truly, those who want to keep unfettered access to ideas have at least as much to fear from faceless bureaucrats as from book-burning "firemen."

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fist, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

Don't stop here.

As I mentioned a few days ago in the comments, I mostly picked war horses from a generation or two (or more) ago for this celebration, in part to make the point that what once was forbidden often winds up on standard reading lists. But there are books out there that need a friend today--long before Steven Spielberg gets around to optioning the movie rights. p3 friend Batocchio lists many more that have found their way onto the roster of "challenged" books.

Read a banned book.

And thank a librarian.

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