Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Burning Books and Remembering

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is often read as a story about censorship--yet censorship usually means that certain ideas may not be expressed. The Firemen in Bradbury's dystopia burn ALL books--it's the media that's marked for destruction, not necessarily the message. Books symbolize a way of thinking, trying to understand, wanting to communicate, publishing to preserve knowledge that those in control could not allow. They replaced books with mindless entertainment--big screen walls and faux-interactive "reality shows". As Bradbury said, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." Behind Bradbury's book is a whole idea of culture--the kind of culture represented by books and education but also by the world Clarisse tells Montag about. She and her family are trying to hold on to a life of thinking and talking about ideas and loving nature--sitting on front porches in rocking chairs enjoying a garden. Montag doesn't recognize that world at all. His wife Mildred is totally absorbed in the meaningless imagery of The Family--yet she cannot even tell him what happens during a day of sitting in a room with three wall screens (which is not enough for her--she demands the fourth wall be covered with a screen). There is nothing permanent in this entertainment; it numbs the brain as much as Mildred's sleeping pills numb her body. And then the war comes and the city is pulverized.

There are two passages in the novel that, not surprisingly, reminded me of the issues of the English Reformation. One is very obvious: Mrs. Hudson, immolating herself among her books, quoting the famous statement of Bishop Latimer to Bishop Ridley: "Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." (Our source for this is Foxe's Acts and Monuments, in a later edition, after the first edition indicated that no one knew about either man's last words before being burned to death in Oxford on October 16, 1555).[Timing, eh?]

The other is more indirect: the situation of the men in the woods who describe to Montag how they have memorized books and are holding on to the memory of primarily western culture to pass it on to their children. This underground memory culture reminds me of Catholic recusants, passing on memories of their English Catholic heritage: "We'll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. . . ." Those underground Catholics of the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries prepared for the revival of Catholicism in England during the 19th and 20th, maintaining their knowledge and practice of the Faith the best they could, even with some losses, until public worship, and buildings, and schools and colleges, the structures of education and culture could be restored and rebuilt.

I suppose a rather troublesome sequel to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 would come with the restoration of libraries, schools, and institutions of higher learning--then the dispersed unity of those who have memorized the books would have to come together. They would have to organize and accept their places in a hierarchy and a system to rebuild and restore. Perhaps a little like the Catholic community in England during the 19th century?


  1. One of my favorite books as well as the movie. I have made everyone of my children and grandchildren watch this to allow them to relize how important reading is. My father made me memorize John Donnes Meditation XVII> and while I can not say it in its entirty now I learned
    something then.

    1. I agree. My 12 year old son read this last year at my insistence (Mr. Bradbury is one of my favorite authors and this book is incredibly poignant in terms of illustrating the control of information by tyrannous institutions). We discussed it in reference to the Nazi regime in Germany and their control of information and I really think it helped him to comprehend that time and place in history. Of course, this completely separate from school, I suspect he will never encounter literature like this in school, sad to say.