Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, presents a repressive society of the future where books are illegal and firemen burn any house that contains them. Bradbury titled his most famous book after “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.” The cultural landscape Bradbury created is reminiscent of Nazi Germany and other societies throughout history, from ancient eras to contemporary times, in which censorship of thoughts resulted in mass book destruction.
Lest you think America’s celebrated Constitutionally-protected right to “free speech” has shielded this country from similar attempts at suppression, be aware that in the past dozen years alone, Harry Potter books were burned in several American states, “non-approved” Bibles, books and music were burned in North Carolina, and copies of the Qu’ran were burned in various states.
It doesn’t take burning to threaten books and the treasures they possess. Every year, attempts to ban books abound throughout our country. Thought-provoking expression and concepts are often banished from classrooms, libraries and public discourse simply because someone has taken offense at a word, a phrase or an illustration; isolated fragments are pulled out of context and attacked, often by people who haven’t bothered to read the full text or consider different viewpoints. This is true of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a perennial title on “Most Challenged Books” lists since its publication in 1960, and of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, recently banned in Chicago Public Schools (see last week’s Book●ed blog 451 Degrees – Part 1 for details).
Fahrenheit 451 is prescient and worth a read (or re-read) six decades after its first publication. Bradbury envisioned many technical and cultural developments that are common today. The book’s uncanny foresight magnifies the strength of its message: When we ban books, we repress thought; we reduce the ability to think; we diminish what it is to be human. If we do not defend the freedom of books to exist and be read, we could find ourselves fulfilling Bradbury’s dystopian nightmare.
We do not need to endorse books with viewpoints, language or imagery that are at odds with our own — but we should not fear them. Every book eventually stands on its literary merits. Poorly written books, those with gratuitous attempts to shock or titillate, will fall from their own weakness. Every book should be given a chance: to start a dialogue, to teach, to enlighten and to enhance humanity.