Life sometimes is stranger than fiction

September 27, 1994|By Thomas N. Longstreth

AS SCHOOLS resume in many communities this fall, book committees are reviewing textbook lists, looking for titles to eliminate, not because of a perceived lack of literary merit, but rather for other reasons.

Unfortunately, many literary gems are placed on such lists in a move to not offend or not air different views.

Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" ("The temperature at which books burn.") published in 1953, is one that has appeared on such lists. It's one of a handful of American novels in the tradition of the "negative utopia" made famous by Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984." Such books exaggerate current trends into a warning of what will come to be if corrective action is not taken.

When Ray Bradbury's novel first appeared it was dismissed in many quarters as science fiction, and it wasn't taken very seriously, although it should have been.

The hero, Guy Montag, is a fireman; his duty is to burn books, which provoke thought and therefore cause unrest and unhappiness in the populace.

Since history is no longer taught, the government can make the claim that firemen have always performed this function; their rule manual explains that the firemen of America were established in 1790 by Benjamin Franklin "to burn English-influenced books in the colonies."

If the people have a religion it is hedonism, and their advanced technology is the means to achieve their salvation. They sedate themselves with non-stop television played on wall-size screens, and with all manner of legal drugs.

Their affluent neighborhoods are patrolled by efficient teams of paramedics who routinely pump out the stomachs of those who have unwittingly overdosed.

How did the banning of books come about? Today we might call the process political correctness. Montag's boss (a familiar character in such novels: an educated person who has sold out to the establishment, and explicates the system to the hero and to the reader) explains: "You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred . . . . Colored people [a polite, respectable term in the 1950's] didn't like 'Little Black Sambo.' Burn it. White people don't feel good about 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book." Fundamentalist Christians are the minority most often appeased today in public school book banning.

It was not just books that disappeared. A man named Faber (a retired English professor who was thrown out into the world when the last liberal arts college closed) becomes Montag's mentor in intellectual rebellion.

He says, "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters."

Bradbury paints an eerily familiar mosaic of our modern world. Montag's fire chief explains that "school is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected. . . . Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.

Clarisse, Montag's 17-year-old neighbor, says "I'm afraid of children my age. They kill each other. . . . Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks."

Montag wonders why his government drops bombs on other nations: "Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world?

Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are?"

At the end the world cities have been destroyed in an atomic war, but Montag, having joined a band of fugitive academics roaming deserted railroad beds through the countryside, has survived.

These educated people, bearing collectively an understanding of when, how and why the human race has failed, will plan the work of building a new, more humane civilization.

An early review of "Fahrenheit 451" was accompanied by a cartoon showing two little green space people looking up into their heavens, watching the planet Earth blow up. The caption read: "They must have been very intelligent beings. They learned how to destroy their world."

Thomas N. Longstreth writes from Baltimore.

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