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May 3, 2013

World Book Night & FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953

A Gab Bag Post and Book Review by Laura Madsen, mom and writer

WorldBook Night is a neat organization that is “spreading the love of reading, from person to person.” It’s about encouraging people who don’t normally read books—because they’ve never read books for fun, because they’re incarcerated, or because they can’t afford books—to try one for free. It is celebrated on April 23, the birth and death day of William Shakespeare. Twenty thousand volunteers each give out twenty copies of a book they choose from a list of specially-published paperbacks. (The authors waive their royalties for the special edition, and the publishers cover the printing costs.) The book list this year includes old and new, children’s and adult, fiction and nonfiction, dramatic and comedic, and even Spanish and large-print versions. On April 23, 2013, volunteers gave out half a million free books across the United States and another half a million in the United Kingdom.

I received a copy of Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 from an acquaintance who works at the King’s English Bookshop, a fantastic independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. Although I’m not the demographic that World Book Night is targeting (“light or non-readers”), I happily accepted it and am reading it. However, I will pass it on to someone else in fulfillment of its mission.

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don't put out fires--they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury's vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal—a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. (Amazon)

FAHRENHEIT451 was published in 1953. I recently read H. Beam Piper’s LITTLE FUZZY, a science fiction novel published in 1962 that’s really showing its age. It’s like MAD MEN in space: smoking in the office, drinking cocktails before noon, and having “the girl” (i.e., the secretary) place your calls. While LITTLE FUZZY is very dated, FAHRENHEIT 451 is still quite relevant today.

The title refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire: 451 degrees. The main character is Guy Montag. He’s a fireman—but not the job we think of when we think of firefighters. In Bradbury’s dystopic future, firemen ignite fires to burn books, which have been universally banned. However, Montag is intrigued by books and hides one in his jacket at a burning.

Montag’s fire chief explains how the burning started: “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm. Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more. 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! School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.” One wonders if Ray Bradbury was psychic to foresee Facebook, Twitter and text-speak!

The chief continues: “But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” Books, being intellectual, are burned. So too is anything that offends anyone; any book that might upset a minority group is burned. “Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.”

And: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. We [firemen] stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.”

Does this sound like our world sixty years after the book was published? For many Americans, the extent of their knowledge-seeking in a day is to check Facebook, click “Like” on silly kitty photos, respond to the posts of strangers with grammatically incorrect vitriol, tweet the inane details of their life to other strangers, and carry on. They ignore world news, disregard anything that might challenge their way of thinking, and reduce philosophical and political discussion to forgettable memes. Would those people miss anything if every single copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was burned? Would they even notice? The only difference between today and Bradbury’s world are that we ourselves—not the government—are cutting off the “torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy” that might make us think.

Books and knowledge and thinking are what World Book Night and FAHRENHEIT 451 are all about.

Market: adult fiction (dystopian/ science fiction)
Violence: moderate to high
Sensuality: minimal
Language: mild
Adult themes: book burning, arson, murder, betrayal, government oppression, censorship, revolution

What are YOUR thoughts on this topic?


Valette M. said...

Wow. World book night sounds super cool. I'm sorry I missed it this year, but would love to participate next year.
"I want to win a book."

Julie said...

Thank you for this fascinating and well-written post! I have never read Fahrenheit 451, but you certainly draw compelling parallels between the novel and today's society. Although technology has allowed us to communicate more easily, the quality of our conversations has suffered greatly. I teach college writing, and so many of my students want to Google everything to find answers, as opposed to "seeking knowledge." The mentality is on finding information or finding what is required vs. actually engaging in difficult topics and expanding our viewpoints and understandings of various topics. This might be a massive generalization, but I can see how tech contributes to that slow process of strangling ourselves under the guise of improvement.

I want to win a book!

Rosebriars said...

I completely disagree that we 'are cutting off the “torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy” that might make us think.' While I share the frustration about the seeming lack of language literacy of 'digital natives' (those children who have grown up in the cell phone/tablet era), I think it is both elitist and ageist to mourn the death of deep thought.

One of the most wonderful things about the internet, and social media, is that (like scripture) it contains a wealth of story and instruction accessible to all those who read it at their developmental level and salience. My Facebook news feed spans personal topics as varied as the anguished cries of the disappointed sports fan to the anguished cries of a university student vulnerably sharing his long hidden experience with depression.

My few hours spent on Facebook in as many weeks have brought to my attention thoughtful blog posts/videos/articles on: the able bodied bias inherent in the ‘does vaccination cause autism’ discussion; how do men’s responses to women’s tight apparel indicate the content of their hearts; a light-hearted, straightforward and very uneroticized commentary by a member of the BDSM community on how Fifty Shades portrays parts of her lifestyle; and a study showing that the most important thing you can do for the psychological resilience of your children is tell them stories of their family so they will feel connected to the generations that came before. And alongside these deep dives into the very soul of what it is to be human, I laughed hysterically while watching goalie Scott Sterling get repeatedly hit in the face with a soccer ball.

In my opinion, the depth of social dialogue has remained unchanged since the first cave painting. Humans experience our world in a stunning variety of ways. If anything, the advent of the internet and social media has put that variety of perspectives on public display to be shared (and judged) in real time and for all time. In 25 character bites.

Thanks for bringing up such a lively topic for discussion; I enjoyed the chance to write. And for your reading enjoyment:

I want to win a book!