Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Fahrenheit 451

(Click for a larger image)

In honor of Banned Books Week (much, much more on that here), I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It also happens to be a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read book. (I guess that earns double credit - Whoo-hoo! And a hat tip to Blue Gal for a head's up on the Big Read.) The Big Read site has background information and discussion questions for all their books, and additional resources for teachers, but I thought an interview with Bradbury about the book was the most fascinating.

Bradbury's an extremely prolific writer, with short stories forming much of his output. Fahrenheit 451 is pretty short, too, really a novella - Bradbury wrote in 10 days renting a typewriter at the library. (I'm telling ya, read that linked interview!) It's easily one of his best and most enduring works, and the Wiki entry lists some of the many pieces that reference it. Isaac Asimov observed that in science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer), the background is often half or more of the story. While sci-fi has seen some good and superb prose stylists (and plenty of crap, too), the genre in its lifetime has witnessed plenty of pieces with fairly conventional plots or underdeveloped characters that nonetheless present extremely thought-provoking worlds. It's a genre of ideas and imagination. The best pieces are good on all levels, of course, but even some flawed works can spur fascinating discussions on philosophy, anthropology, political science, culture – how do we know what we think we know, what assumptions do we make, how does our society really work and how might it work differently, what does it mean to be human? (I think (and hope) the attitude of snobbery toward the genre coupled with ignorance of it is slowly fading over time. I always found it ironic to see sci-fi trashed as a genre, while for decades 1984 and Brave New World have consistently landed in the top 20 on 'Greatest Novels of the 20th Century' lists. Meanwhile, more of what I'd call "real sci-fi" versus the solely pulpy variety has snuck into mainstream entertainment, from pieces of The Matrix to much of Lost.)
In Fahrenheit 451, fireman Guy Montag burns books rather than putting out house fires, because literature, poetry, good books and really good art in general are seen as not just useless, but dangerous. The title refers to the temperature at which books burn. Montag then has a crisis of conscience and curiosity (the Wiki entry gives a more detailed plot summary, but I imagine many people are familiar with it already). The book's very much about censorship, but Bradbury's stated it's more about television killing novel-reading, and basically vapid entertainment replacing substance. (It goes well with Orwell's "Politics and English Language"and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.) The book also taps into very real history, the samizdat tradition of underground copies of forbidden books in oppressive regimes. Fahrenheit 451 is a provocative book, especially for book-lovers, and has proved very popular with teenagers. It's hard to read it, or see Truffault's film version, and not think about what prized books one would try to save (a more urgent version of the old "deserted island" question, I suppose). It's the world of Bradbury's book that really sticks with us.

However, that world is with us now, in small and large ways. For Banned Books Week, Blue Gal posted a news report from 2006 about a family trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 in Houston:

The levels of irony here are astounding. First, art is capable of saying many things at once, and often deals in nuance, subtlety and ambiguity. That's one reason totalitarian governments have sought to control it, and the more literally-minded tend not to like it so much. The family depicted is extremely conservative, but both daughter and father have completely missed that "burning the Bible" is not depicted as a good thing in Fahrenheit 451! If they ever made it to the end, they'd also know that (slight spoiler) Montag memorizes part of the Book of Ecclesiastes! The father's list of objectionable material in the book probably corresponds pretty closely with the 75 or more passages that a publisher changed in Fahrenheit 451 without Bradbury's knowledge or permission (all editions past 1980 or so in English are supposedly authorized and complete). Meanwhile, swearing and drinking aren't necessarily celebrated in the book anyway.

But what if they were? I understand parental anxiety, but I've never quite understood the idea that somehow, one can protect one's child from ever experiencing the world as it actually exists. Even if one doesn't swear or drink, other people do. There's the question of age appropriate material, of course, but unless one lives in a select or cloistered community, teenagers will experience or at least become aware of the existence of that demonic triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Teenagers have the choice of how to react to those things and the world, and the question for parents becomes how they want to prepare their kids. Typically, high school teachers try to give some preparation, provoke reflection, and provide a safe forum for discussion on the complexities of the world. Honest, realistic discussion is a more effective approach than one of control or denial. But this cuts to core world views, and whether one feels education should inculcate obedience, or help young adults develop their own critical thinking and decision-making skills.

If you've read Fahrenheit 451, this Houston news report might also remind you a specific section of the book. Roughly halfway through (slight spoiler), Montag forces his wife and two visiting friends to listen to him read a poem, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." All three women have been figuratively or literally anesthetized to their own feelings, and the poem provokes a powerful reaction in them as well as Montag. One cries. One is angry that Montag would read anything to move her and make her feel something, especially something sad.

The young woman in the news report is much the same. I don't mean to pick on her too much, especially since she didn't pick her dad. But she says she was upset by swearing and the Bible being burned. Basically, Fahrenheit 451 provoked a strong emotional reaction in her, and she didn't know how to deal with it. Her father, in defensive mode, decided to swoop in and remove the source of her distress rather than help her work through her feelings. That reaction is lamentable, if more forgivable as a first reaction. But then he pushed on to try to remove the book. If Fahrenheit 451 of all things set him off so, I'm surprised he allows his daughter in public school at all.

The teacher appears wise for allowing the student to perform an alternative reading assignment. That did not satisfy the father, however. And this comes to the crux of censorship we've discussed before in terms of a certain political candidate. It's fine (if sad) for this young woman and her father not to want to read this book. That's their choice. But in moving to pull the book, this man is trying to remove that same choice from other people. The dynamics are a bit different in a public school curricula versus a public library, because of the compulsory element, but in this case, the teacher adapted the assignment for the student. The father has every right to express his concerns. But he happens to be far out of the mainstream in his views. He's also frankly a dolt (not that I'd bring that up in a board meeting). To complain that Fahrenheit 451 in any way denigrates firefighters or religion reveals either desperation or a basic lack of reading comprehension skills – "values" he apparently has passed on to his daughter. Again, that's his legal right, but I can't help but feel he's depriving his daughter of something special and vibrant. And he shouldn't be able to do the same to anyone else. (More on the importance of healthy discomfort and independence in education here and here.)

To return to Bradbury, he's currently 88, and lives out here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he's in poor health, diabetic, normally uses a wheelchair, and his beloved wife of 56 years Marguerite died in 2003. On the positive side, he has a host of friends, and still has the enthusiasm of a young kid. I went to hear Bradbury at my local library a couple of years back, and the place was overflowing. Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest proponents of libraries ever. A very bright, curious and imaginative young man, he skipped college and instead became largely self-educated by spending countless hours in the library. If you get a chance to hear him speak, do, because he's very inspiring. For Bradbury, every film he likes is the greatest film ever, and every novel he loves is the best book ever written. He's very effusive in his praise. He has his cranky and particular sides, but his love for the arts is invigorating. I believe he still writes every day, as he has since he was a young man.

I've heard him speak a few other times because some friends of mine acted in plays based on his works out here. Bradbury's always loved the theater, and so he produces plays based on his short stories fairly regularly, even though he tends to lose a modest amount of money doing so. He often attends the performances, and being a bit of a ham, absolutely loves to give a little introduction each time. He ropes many friends into attending. Sci-fi and fantasy doesn't always translate wonderfully to the stage, but the pieces selected are well-adapted and tend to work pretty well. Not all of his stories are sci-fi – one of my favorites was a character study with minimal lighting, a man playing both a priest and a confessor. One lonely night, the priest "admits" a penitent, who owns up to a sin he committed as a young boy that still haunts him. (Spoiler, I suppose) The piece is a dialogue by one man, and as the priest he essentially grants himself absolution. It was very well acted, but the piece itself was impressive and poignant. Meanwhile, I overheard Bradbury boasting to someone after one not-so overwhelming piece that he doesn't revise (or doesn't much) - and I think that particular piece could have benefited from it. But one of Bradbury's virtues is his sheer output. As with Asimov, not every piece is a gem, but the rougher works still often have interesting facets, and Bradbury's crafted some enduring classics in his prodigious yield.

The scan above is my copy of Fahrenheit 451, the cover and the title page. I had somehow forgotten I had gotten Bradbury to autograph it, so that was a pleasant surprise. However, in researching the book this week, I discovered my copy may be one of the bowdlerized versions! (Today I picked up a newer edition from the library – the same one where I heard Bradbury speak, actually - and I'll investigate.)

Some later editions of Fahrenheit 451 have an afterword and coda by Bradbury. He describes two scenes he considered for the book but didn't include, and one is pretty fascinating, focusing on the Fire Chief Beatty and his secret library. He also comes out strongly against censorship of Fahrenheit 451 or any of his other works. The Big Read uses one of his best passages:

Do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

Meanwhile, although it's been several years since I've seen it, and it's a bit emotionally detached perhaps, I've always sorta liked Truffault's film version of Fahrenheit 451. I think its chief virtues are more of the young woman Clarisse, and a longer look at the underground society. According to a film book of mine, Bradbury thought the scene with the snow falling on the camp was one of the most beautiful in cinema (when he loves something, he really loves something).

In any case, speaking of that world of Bradbury's — Fahrenheit 451 always makes me ask myself, what book would I memorize to safeguard it for the ages? I could imagine trying to memorize my favorite translation of The Master and Margarita or maybe Orwell, but I think I'd probably go the theater route, and memorize play after play until my memory was overloaded. Were I in Bradbury's world, I'd try to set up an underground theater troupe, and we'd travel about on the abandoned railroad tracks, performing plays in repertory in secret performances. Currently, I'm thinking my priority list would be, in order:

1. King Lear
2. Much Ado about Nothing
3. Hamlet
4. The Servant of Two Masters by Goldoni (Commedia dell'arte)
5. The Miser by Molière
6. Equus by Peter Shaffer

After that, I'm not sure. I'm pretty sure I could memorize at least three, but with a full troupe performing these, I think the number could really expand. Maybe Amadeus, also by Shaffer? The Seagull or Uncle Vanya by Chekhov? The Importance of Being Earnest? For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf by Ntozake Shange? (Seriously, it's fantastic.) The Crucible or maybe Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller? Some Pirandello? Tom Stoppard? Brecht? The Elephant Man? There are other novels that tempt me, but the beauty of theater is that it's so alive and present, a constant dialogue. I also think in some bleak, future dystopia, King Lear, Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Equus and The Crucible would really resonate, but it'd be absolutely vital to have some great comedies.

So – what book(s) would you memorize?

(Don Quixote in his Library, by Gustave Doré. Click for a larger view.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Comrade Kevin said...

Candide by Voltaire. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody.

Fran / Blue Gal said...

something in Margaret Atwood's later works, or maybe Adam Bede.

driouxcipher said...

The Truffaut film is also notable for the fact that he pulled Bernard Herrmann out of retirement (he had fallen from grace with Hitchcock in a big way following the aborted score for Torn Curtain) to score Fahrenheit. It's a really impassioned work from the master of the short psychological motive. Well worth checking out again.
(I promise I will call you on Tuesday!!!)

driouxcipher said...

I would love to be able to pull any sentence at random out of either "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt, or, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" by the late, great David Foster Wallace.
Also, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night...and the rest of Shakespeare.