My Freshman year at William & Mary, I had a lot of friends on hall in another dormitory from mine and I would hang out there a lot. One of the guys on the hall, Paul, decided one day to set fire to various objects in the shower, just for fun. He was evicted from college housing for the rest of the year and had to live off campus (in a guest house which seems a lot cushier than dormitory living, but I digress). Being 18-19 year-old boys, Paul’s hall mates found this hilarious and his act of arson became the keystone event for the year. When it came time to make hall t-shirts they selected a logo of a flame with the motto “It was a pleasure to burn.”
That quote of course is the first line of Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury, my first selection of reading for Banned Books Week. When we think of books being banned it’s usually by government and/or religious authorities. The events charted by ALA on their Banned and Challenged Books lists are not so much total banishment but the acts of parents, teachers, librarians, and concerned individuals that a book in school curriculum or on the library shelf will somehow harm children.
Bradbury writes of a different kind of banning, one where the people of his dystopia willingly give up books to escape the fear, uncertainty, and discomfort prompted by the ideas contained in books. Sure, the government sponsors squads of firemen to destroy books, but in this society the firemen are heroes (and entertainment) for people who would rather pursue hedonism. Their lives are numbed by wall-sized televisions, in-ear radios, and riding in fast car. They’re happy to support their country going to war as long as it lasts 48 hours and no one they know gets hurt. In other words, it sounds startlingly similar to our country today, at least metaphorically. After all, how many people do you know who’ve willingly banned books from their lives?
This is an excellent book, a bit melodramatic, but well-written. I can’t believe I never read it before now.