“It Was A Pleasure To Burn…”

February 17, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

February’s Big Read in Missouri has selected a surprising novel–Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  I should not assume everyone today has read it, so briefly it is a novel about a future in which it is illegal to read books.  The fire department, because all houses are built of fireproof materials, no longer puts out fires, but burns books when it finds hidden caches.  A fairly decent film was made of it in the Sixties.  The reasoning behind this future is the eventual, clinical “rationalization” of history by a technocratic elite who have decided that fiction–and dreams–are inimical to peace and productivity and happiness.  The scientific age did this, with its hyper rationality and impatience with anything that cannot be measured or controlled.  It is a parable much of its times–the Fifties–and a terrifying landscape to anyone with half a brain and an ounce of independence.

But…

Ray Bradbury got it wrong, but when I first read Fahrenheit 451 I believed him. He scared me to the core with that book. That and the related stories, like The Exiles and Usher II, chilled me and set me on schemes of hiding my books from the sterile-suited, cold-eyed rationalists bent on doing me good for my own sake. Scared me terrifically, but in the end he got it wrong.

I was eleven when I read both 451 and The Martian Chronicles.  I was in parochial school, among people ready to protect me with great spiritual warmth from a world that seemed determined to do away with God. Somehow in that strange time in the middle to late Sixties, communism and science had gotten entwined. It’s clear now. Most of the sf films of the Fifties and Sixties depicted the scientist as an emotionless drudge, all consumed with reason and facts. Communists were likewise shown to be people who would sacrifice their parents in the name of the state, the collective, the greater good of the proletariat. There was no room for love or faith or kindness. It was an aesthetic alliance, a tone and pervasive comparison that we just took for granted. We were children, we didn’t know.

And most didn’t care. There was baseball and muscle cars, rock’n’roll and miniskirts, and Johnson, whose Texan drawl was anything but literate and scientific, was going to make the country povertyless and free. Science was going to moon, not learning how think. Communism was “over there” in rice paddies and Red Square and the quickest way to get a punch in the eye was to call somebody a “Commie.”

But I was reading these stories of how in the name of the orderly society all the books were going to be collected and burned and it was going to be the scientists–the rationalists– who were going to do it. After all, it wasn’t rational to believe in alternate worlds or aliens or ghosts or Atlantis (even though archaeologists were searching, but they weren’t after all scientists–were they?–scientists worked in laboratories and wore white smocks…); it wasn’t rational to dream about John Carter or Tarzan, pretend to be Horatio Hornblower or James Bond; it wasn’t rational to prefer reading fantasies about other stars rather than textbooks about them.

Was it?

I wasn’t sure. Even while I made preparations, hidey-holes in which to squirrel away my books, something nagged me about the whole premise. For one thing, while I was reading Bradbury, I was also reading Clarke.

The thing about Arthur C. Clarke, especially at that age, is the impossibility of coming away without a sense of his profound faith that science–Reason–will give us the stars. And everything else in between. Clarke’s work shares a pervasive confidence–not loud and splashy, but quietly insistent, just there in the background–that the true spirituality of humanity is expressed in its ability to solve problems and realize dreams.

Wait a minute. Dreams? But scientists aren’t dreamers, are they? I mean, the books I love, the novels and stories, they’re dreams on paper, made living by the reading…they aren’t rational. They won’t solve problems or give us the stars…will they? The scientists will burn them…won’t they?

Like most things at that age, obsessions come and go. I recovered from my fright. I didn’t think about it for a long time, until I ran into committees organized to pull books from library shelves, people who published lists of banned books, boycotts against bookstores designed to get rid of certain books. Then all the fear Bradbury had evoked in me as a child came back, full force.

But they weren’t scientists. Or communists.

They were people who believed in ghosts. People who believed in devils and plots with communists. People who were afraid of scientists. People who, if they read books at all, only read the books they are told to read by those who make promises they cannot deliver.

Bradbury got it wrong. Partly, at least. The book burners don’t know anything about science, nor do they want to. If they win they will not be clean, sterile technocrats. They won’t be burning the Bible along with Narnia and the Galactic Empire. They won’t go to Mars. They won’t go anywhere. Science is a dream, too.

Clarke understood.

I’m glad I read them both.

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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Culture, Good and Evil, History, Noteworthy, Reading - Books and Magazines, Religion, Science, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. AJ says:

    In 451, I saw a culture dumbed down and obsessed with mass media. Books represented thoughtfulness, the taking of time to deeply consider everything around you.

    It's been 15 years since I read the book, but I recall other important early points, such as taking the time to look at the natural world (blades of grass, I believe) and the shallowness of a spouse obsessed with a video wall who was completely detached from world events (accepting whatever the government told her). The burning of books symbolized the washing away of rational, critical thought. Book readers were the only counter-culture, the only people remaining who were capable of critically analyzing the actions of their government.

  2. Ali says:

    I read this book a couple of years ago. It kept me so interested that I read past the end into the author's notes. Somewhere he mentions that the reason the book burnings started was because of minorities. People would find something offensive and they would get it taken out. It started with words, turned into sentences and eventually all books were made illegal. From what I gathered it was the society's general fears of an idea. What's disturbing is that it seems both the left and the right are burning books in their own special way.

  3. Bradbury did get it right that it would not be big government imposing these rules on the society and taking away ideas and burning books. He saw the danger in letting different minority groups dictate what they consider dangerous.

    The Pelham Library, Fonthill, ON is celebrating "Freedom to Read" Week in Canada and is inviting readers from all over the world to take the "Banned Book Challenge." http://www.pelhamlibrary.blogspot.com/2007/02/tak

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    As I read this post, I can't help but think how important a good education is. Not a flashcard-education, where children are filled with facts that they later forget. As B.F. Skinner wrote, "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."

    I'm talking about an education where they are taught to think critically for themselves. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=781 If they don't learn to think critically, they will always deal with "inconvenient" books by burning them rather than learning from them. If they don't obtain the tools for DEALING with "threatening" ideas, they will spend their lives chasing bogeymen (such as scientists) rather than finding ways to improve their communities.

  5. Devi says:

    Is the Pelham library list of banned books for real? Who has banned (or challenged) these books? There are many classics among them that every person should read, As I Lay Dying, The Sun Also Rises, etc. Unbelieveable that anyone would think that every English literate person above the age of 12 shouldn't read those books (or at least try, some of them I admit I didn't much enjoy and probably didn't finish, like Clockwork Orange).

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    These books distrub rather than reaffirm. People who ban books or lobby to see them banned want to be consoled by their entertainment, not challeneged. And they really don't want their kids asking questions they can't answer.

  7. The list is for real. Some of them are challenges long past but many of them are taken from recent lists put out by the Freedom to Read organization in Canada or the American Library Association in the US. If you are interested in finding out why these books have been challenged, search our web log with the book title or visit some of the links on the right of the page.

    Our public library would never remove a book that a patron or organized group challenged and readers have assess to any book in Canada through the Interlibrary Loan system.

    It is school libraries and curricula that face the most challenges. As recently as this year, one dad wanted Fahrenheit 451 removed from the curriculum for all children, even though his daughter was given another choice of novel. In Canada, a wonderful book called Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak was removed from or restricted at elementary school libraries in at least five school boards. The school boards gave in to pressure from the Canadian Jewish Congress even though I believed the author gave a very balanced view of the situation in Israel/Palestine. The children themselves speak.

    I believe that well-meaning school librarians, principals, and even librarians at public libraries likely quietly remove books they consider controversial.

  8. Ben says:

    Go ahead and burn away… most of the classics (and 20,000 other books) are now available for free! Downloads free too, and available in many languages!

    http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/

    http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

    and some contents which caugh my eye…

    http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?f

    http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?f

    http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?p

  9. Stephen says:

    He didn't "get it wrong" because <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=uefwmdROKTAC&pg=PA405&lpg=PA405&dq=%22i'm+not+trying+to+predict+the+future%22+bradbury&source=bl&ots=IHyj1M8mUH&sig=Sf0oUzk8ELgN4zmho0_JPf7-3cc&hl=en&ei=fiOoSevMLZHQMoTU9c0C&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result&quot; rel="nofollow">he wasn't trying to predict the future

    "I'm not trying to predict the future, I'm trying to prevent it" – Ray Bradbury

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