In 1953, Ray Bradbury published a novel about a future America in which books are outlawed and systematically burned. He wrote it in the middle of the McCarthy era, when people were persecuted and blacklisted for thinking or writing the wrong thing, and just a decade after mass book burnings ushered in the Nazi regime in Germany. In the United States, his book met with much acclaim, but was also criticized by some as histrionic and alarmist. There was controversy–because in this country anyone who wanted to could read it. In apartheid South Africa, it was simply banned.
The protagonist of the book is a “fireman” named Guy Montag. His job is to ferret out secret stashes of books in people’s houses, douse them with kerosene and burn them, along with the house as punishment, and the occupants too if they refuse to leave. His docile acceptance of this work and his grim existence is disrupted when he meets a new neighbor, a teenager named Clarisse, whose subversive ideas about literature and freedom of thought make her a social outcast. When Clarisse is killed under suspicious circumstances, Guy descends into a spiraling personal crisis that eventually ends in his rebellion, his near death, and his liberation.
A cautionary tale
I first read Fahrenheit 451 (named for the temperature at which paper burns) as a high school junior in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was a liberal college town, and the book was pretty much required reading as a cautionary tale about the dangers of censorship and the fundamental importance of freedom of thought. I remember being mesmerized by it, not so much for what it taught me about intellectual liberation, but more for its dystopian pathos. It was The Hunger Games for my generation of teens. Also, Clarisse was kind of a tragic Manic Pixie Dream Girl–and my first fictional crush.
Book banning in 2023
Fast forward to 2023 (roughly the time frame in which Fahrenheit 451 was set), and events that once seemed like a distant dystopian fantasy are now a staple of the daily news. In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year alone, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans cites 1,477 instances of books being removed and forbidden in our schools. The overwhelming majority of these bans were stories about people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals. Some dealt with issues of racism and discrimination or historical accounts of enslavement, but others simply had characters who were identified as belonging to those groups. Apparently, these bans are meant, not only to erase history, but to erase people as well.
The bans were mostly triggered by state legislatures passing censorship bills that threaten school districts with defunding or criminal prosecution. The laws are justified as a means of “protecting” children and parental rights. They go hand-in-hand with other laws, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that forbids teachers from even mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, or the many laws that ban any classroom discussion of systemic racism in the United States as “critical race theory.”
This is truly scary stuff. Freedom of thought may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it’s the foundation for every other freedom that is. Every authoritarian regime that ever existed, from Hitler to Putin, used censorship as page one of its playbook, and as a crucial engine of its ascent to power. If you control which ideas are acceptable, you control how people perceive the world, and you can create any reality you want. These days, if you take that tactic and supercharge it with social media and artificial intelligence, there’s no limit to how far you can distort the truth.
I’ve always been an optimist about the future of humankind. Maybe it’s all those hours I spent as a kid watching “Star Trek,” and the enlightened, multi-racial, multi-species crew of the Enterprise following the Prime Directive from one galaxy to the next. But lately, that optimism has been sorely tested. Ray Bradbury saw this coming 70 years ago, and tried to warn us. His dystopia is now.
Teach children how to think critically
We have to find a way to protect our kids from these people who are claiming to protect them. Our goal should be to teach our children how to think critically for themselves, and we can only do that if we expose them to the full richness of human experience and perspective, rather than deprive them. The banning of books and the ideas they contain is a fever, and the temperature in this country is rising fast. If we don’t do something soon, who knows what will burn down next?