Friday, October 3, 2014

The Book Lover's Den #6: Fahrenheit 451 and Censorship

Welcome to my Friday feature!

In each weekly post, I explore 
my thoughts on several 
book-related topics.

This masterpiece of dystopian science fiction, first published in 1953, is the quintessential novel written on the subject of censorship. Bradbury is a master of prose that vividly brings to life the stories he tells, and his characters always remain with the reader. In this brilliant novel, he accurately depicts the deadening effects of total censorship. His fictional society has completely banned books -- ALL books. It is the written word itself, in whatever form it might take, that is considered dangerous, because masterful writing is evocative, because it arouses feelings and instills beliefs that breed discontent, intelligent inquiry, and ultimately, perhaps revolutions. Furthermore, the authorities in this society consider it evil for people to be offended. When people are offended, their reasoning goes, discontent can also breed societal upheaval.

Instead of reading books, people endlessly watch inane, mindless programming, which is broadcast right into their living room walls.  

The plot of this novel centers around a fireman (ironically, firemen in this novel burn any books they might find, instead of saving lives) who eventually rebels against the strictures of this bland, authoritarian society.  

In light of all this, I was really surprised to find out, during Banned Books Week, that Fahrenheit 451 has been challenged several times since its original publication. 

The first of these incidents took place when Bradbury's publisher, Ballantine Books, released an expurgated version, in 1967, which was aimed at high school students. The novel was significantly altered for this edition, known as the "Bal-Hi edition".  Incredibly, this did not come to Bradbury's attention until 1979, when he demanded that Ballantine remove this edition from circulation, and bring back the original. Ballantine did so in 1980.

There were other incidents, all involving schools and libraries; the first of these was in 1987, in Panama City, Florida, another in 1992, in Irvine, California, and yet another in 2006, in Montgomery County, Texas. 

All of these incidents involved complaints that this novel contains  vulgarities, as well as biased portrayals of Christians, and depicts a scene in which a Bible is burned.

I have read this novel myself, and can attest to its power  and high intellectual/emotional impact.  Bradbury clearly demonstrated the effects of total, tyrannical censorship, and they were truly scary. Living in the society depicted in the novel rendered people apathetic, intellectually inferior, without the spark of passion for ideas, for the acquisition of knowledge. 

Fahrenheit 451 has won the following awards: the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, in 1984, and the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel, 2004. In 2007, Bradbury also received a Special Citation at the Pulitzer Prize ceremonies for "....his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy."

I have gone back and done some skimming of this novel, and yes, I see the vulgarities now.....but, for me, these do not take away from the power of this book. As for biased portrayals of Christians, I would have to do a more thorough search of the book to find them, or just re-read the book. Quite frankly, I really don't recall anything in that regard. However, since I was highly impressed with this book during my first reading of it, I don't think such portrayals affected me much, or I would certainly have mentioned them in my review, which I posted on this blog in 2010. 

I find it truly ironic that a novel having the theme of censorship -- although it does deal with other themes -- should have itself been subject to censorship. Bradbury had a lifelong passion for books, and, in fact, educated himself by going to libraries in his twenties, as he could not afford a college education. His passion shows throughout this novel in many ways. Therefore, I believe that focusing on the book's use of such words as "damn" and others (I do not, however, recall the word I simply cannot stand -- "the F bomb" --) is to miss the overall picture. Bradbury actually, uses such words to drive home his point that books are indeed important, that without access to them, a society simply stagnates.

Here are some quotes from the novel:

"Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and the keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people's heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches."

"The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

"I am Plato's Republic. Mr. Simmons is Marcus. I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver's Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag, Aristophanes and Mahatma Ghandi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."

This last quote is a very poignant, powerful one. Since books had been declared illegal, and were burned if found in someone's possession, certain members of the underground movement had memorized entire books, so as to pass them on to future generations!

In short, while Fahrenheit 451 does contain some profanity, it also makes a brilliant philosophical statement about the value of books, and the evils of total censorship. This novel should never have been challenged. Instead, perhaps it should be reserved for older, more mature readers, who will be able to appreciate its urgent message, overlooking any negative aspects of it in the process.

In appreciating the quality and messages of serious literature such as Fahrenheit 451, a reader needs to weigh in the balance elements s/he might consider objectionable, with the author's intent in writing his/her work. In this case, I find that the overall merits of this novel far outweigh the criticisms leveled against it. 

For my review of Fahrenheit 451, please click HERE.

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  1. Great commentary Maria.

    You really have encapsulated this book so well.

    Such a perfect novel to discuss around banned book week. I thought that a particularly important these in this novel, was unlike stories such as Nineteen Eighty - Four. It was the public that originally demanded the censorship and suppression of ideas in this story. It did not come from the top down. I think that this is reflective of many real life situations in the real world.

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Thanks for your compliment!! Much appreciated!!

      Yes, this is definitely the perfect novel for discussions of censorship, especially around Banned Books Week.

      I had to go back and skim through the book, and yes, I did find the vulgar words. However, as I stated in this post, for me this did not detract from the powerful message of this novel. I do think it's for more mature readers, though, so maybe it should only be taught in the last year of high school, and beyond.

      You know, I need to re-read this book, as I did not remember that the censorship came from the public, instead of the government. How about doing a future read-along with this novel? I think it would be GREAT!!

      I also agree with you that censorship situations in the real world -- at least in the U.S. and other democratic countries -- do not come from the top down, but from the people themselves.

      Thanks for another great comment!! : )


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