They Tried to Ban Fahrenheit 451 and Replace It With. . . My Book
David Williams Gets a Troubling Endorsement from Florida Woman
As a writer and an avid reader, few things trouble me more than efforts to ban literature.
Year after year, some of America’s greatest authors seem to be catnip for the censorious. Mark Twain. Toni Morrison. Jack London. John Steinbeck. Ray Bradbury. I feel all of these, but right now, banning Ray Bradbury is what hits me hardest.
I grew up reading Bradbury, and he’s one of the reasons I both love and write science fiction. As a boy, I must have read R is for Rocket a dozen times, curling up with the book on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. His short story “Sound of Thunder” is a work of lingering genius. Given the way 2017 has gone, I’m not sure some panicky time-traveling hunter didn’t trample a butterfly somewhere in our past.
And Fahrenheit 451? I read that book in seventh grade, checking it out of the library on my own because it was Bradbury, absorbing his vision of a world gone sour. That was in 1981.
Now? In 2018? It’s increasingly, terrifyingly prophetic. Bradbury’s imagined dystopia revolves around the story of Guy Montag, a “fireman.” In a deliciously perverse twist, his job is to find and burn print books, as well as the homes. . . and the persons. . . of their readers. Reading is viewed as inherently subversive. Reading is upsetting, making people think upsetting thoughts, which are to be avoided at all costs. It is disruptive of the order in what has become a trivialized, post-literate, manipulative culture.
Back in 1953, Bradbury imaged an impossibly horrific future world where humanity has become obsessed with ever larger screens, which are constantly on in homes defined by omnipresent media. That media, as Montag’s wife Mildred experiences it, is populated by braying, buffoonish characters who act as surrogates for actual human relationships.
Bradbury imagined a world where corporate-authoritarian politics maintain the shallow mask of democracy as a gullible populace is spoonfed candidates. He visualized insurgents and criminals being hunted and killed by the “hound,” an unstoppable drone. He cast a vision of callow selfish brutalism as an endless war burns, far away from a populace willingly subjugated by distractions and banality.
Information, in the society of Fahrenheit 451, is an endless cavalcade of trivia, tightened and shortened until every mind is filled with a blinding, churning nothing. At a key point in the narrative, Montag’s boss Beatty visits him, and in a monologue gives the reader a vision of the way information was presented in this strange and nightmarish future:
…speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending […] classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. [….] Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!
Bradbury may not have actually used the word “Twitter,” but this 1953 description of the low-attention-span “future” cuts rather too close to home.
Fahrenheit 451 has never been more relevant. And as Beatty knew, relevant critiques are dangerous. Unsettling. Unsafe.
So it was no surprise when from Santa Rosa County in the panhandle of Florida this past month there came familiar news. A parent, discovering their child was reading something they found problematic, approached a school board and asked that Fahrenheit 451 be removed from the curriculum.
“Filth,” that parent called Bradbury’s work, as she pressed for it to be removed from an eighth grade reading list. The concerned mom leading the banning effort didn’t see its prophetic relevance. All she saw was a vulgarity, the word “bastard,” which she felt was inappropriate for her 13-year-old daughter. “I’m just trying to keep my little girl a little girl,” she said.
This kind of book-banning effort isn’t unusual, but this one was a gut punch. Why? Because the parent organizing the banning effort suggested that Bradbury’s work should be replaced with something more acceptable to her.
Among her suggestions for more “suitable” material: my own dystopian novel, When the English Fall.
I cannot imagine receiving a more troubling and heartbreaking endorsement.
Sure, my Amish protagonist and narrator doesn’t use vulgarity in the face of the world’s collapse. Because he’s Amish. Old Order Mennonites don’t tend to swear like sailors. But my story contains its fair share of death and murder and human horror, at least as graphic as anything you’ll find in Bradbury.
The mother bringing the complaint was concerned at the violence in the book, and worried that the book wasn’t “safe,” and suggested that kids might read about murder and violence and become murderous and violent themselves. As a pastor, I preach the Bible every Sunday, and teach it in classes. My gracious, I can’t imagine a less “safe” book than the Bible. Try reading Genesis sometime. That’s a rough, rough book. My Adult Ed class has been discovering this last month as we’ve been reading it together. Murder? Rape? Betrayal? Incest? Ray Bradbury’s got nothing on the Word of God.
Or the news. Lord have mercy.
In a culture that is as harsh, uncaring, and profane as ours, I do feel the siren song of keeping all of that away from our kids. With my own boys growing up, it was hard seeing them encounter some of the less pleasant parts of our society. I know that temptation, to wrap them in bubble wrap and keep them children for as long as we can, and maybe it’ll all work out.
But that solves nothing. Nor does it prepared them to be adult participants in a healthy democracy.
And that’s why engaging with great books like Fahrenheit 451 are so important for adolescent readers. They are vital specifically because they are not written for young readers. Instead, they prepare a young person for adulthood a nation that requires both our critical attention and our hopeful imagination. Great literature matures us, and opens our eyes to the real. That’s why it was such a threat to the homogenized, mindless horror of Guy Montag’s culture, and why it’s so necessary for us now.
It’s an essential part of growing up. Encountering writers like Bradbury teaches young adults to become thoughtful, engaged citizens, aware of the preciousness of our God-given liberty and how easily it can be taken away by people who want to keep us “safe.” That’s the whole point of public education in our republic. . . not to keep children forever in childhood, but to help their minds grow.
Thankfully, the school board in Santa Rosa made the right choice. Bradbury will still be taught. I, thank the Maker, will not be brought in as the “safe” alternative to drown out his voice.
We inhabit a time where truth itself is denigrated by those in power, obscured by our media-driven obsession with the trivial and irrelevant, and when propaganda created by malicious autocratic powers tears at the fabric of our republic.
There has never been a more important time to read—and protect—the books that challenge and teach.