Banned Books Week at the Vonnegut Library – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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In honor of “Banned Books Week” (starts Sunday!) the book club at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis read Ray Bradbury’s often-banned novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” At our meeting yesterday, we were also lucky to have a special guest, Jonathan Eller, who is the Director and General Editor of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” in … Indianapolis! Located on the IUPUI campus, it’s part of the “Institute for American Thought” which in turn is part of the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. This “discovery” makes me wonder what other local hidden literary treasures might await me if I looked around a bit more.

Anyway, on to the book. This marked my third reading of this classic. The first time, in January 2001, was simply for my own pleasure. The second was just in 2010, when I re-read it for a discussion at Bookmama’s bookstore. A brief post about my 2010 reading of the book may be found here. I had no regrets about having to read it yet again for the KVMLBC. It’s a short book too, checking in at under 50,000 words. It can be read in a just a few hours, even by a slow reader like me. I won’t re-hash the plot of the story (I’m assuming “everyone” has already read it and, if not, please buy a copy and get started now.) 🙂

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I was looking for ‘something different’ while reading this time around, and I was struck by how “fire” itself could almost be considered a character in this novel. (I felt something similar last year when reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – also for the KVML book club for banned books week – and found the Mississippi River also arguably taking on the role of a character). Initially, in Fahrenheit 451, fire is destructive only. In Fire Chief Captan Beatty’s lecture to the novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, he describes it thus:

“What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it? It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It’s a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledygook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. It’s real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences.”

Later when Montag, after his escape from the city, stumbles upon some men around a campfire, the “personality” of fire had changed:

“It was not burning, it was warming. He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in the darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different.”

It’s little wonder that fire holds a place as one of the four original, primordial “elements” is it?

(below: Nazis burning books; these events happened not too long before Bradbury began work on the earlier versions of Fahrenheit 451. “I hate those guys.” )

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(And so did Indiana Jones, even if he did get Hitler to sign his dad’s “Grail Diary”)

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Due to our special guest’s presence, I also learned a lot about the book – and Bradbury – that I didn’t know. Here are a few tidbits:

The inspiration for Fahrenheit 451 was the 1940 novel, “Darkness at Noon,” by Arthur Koestler.

The original publication of Fahrenheit 451 included some books with asbestos board for covers (!) According to Eller, who has seen one, they have not aged well and should be opened only if wearing a breathing mask of some sort. This edition is pictured at the top of this post.

Eller also told us that Bradbury had a soft spot in his heart for the pedestrian, and that he felt they were a kind of “indicator species” for society (much in the same way ecologists view amphibians in the world of biology). Coincidentally, when Bradbury passed away earlier this year, I searched online for a story – any story – of his to read as a small tribute, and the one I found was “The Pedestrian,” a great short story about a future where being a solitary pedestrian late at night was apparently an arrest-able offense. Eller shared with us that Bradbury wrote this story after an encounter with law enforcement he had himself while out walking. This story may be read online here. It should be mentioned here also that an innocent pedestrian is also victimized in Fahrenheit 451 when the government, having allowed Montag to escape their televised chase, chose a pedestrian as a stand in to hoodwink the viewers into thinking they “got their man.”

We also learned about some of the earlier phases Bradbury’s story went through before it became the final version we know today. The highlight of our meeting (at least to me) was seeing some of the literary artifacts that Eller brought with him. One of these was an original copy of “Galaxy” magazine, wherein the Bradbury short story, “The Fireman” was published. This story was Fahrenheit 451 in, perhaps, it’s “larval” stage…

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Several of those in attendance were curious as to the reasons that Fahrenheit 451 had been banned.  It was mostly “foul language,” (“hell,” “damn,” – you know the type) and the sterilized amendments (many of which were published) seem but minor changes in today’s world.  One member of the club had a book (recently published, too) from a local school that STILL had the amended, sanitized text. Mr. Eller was surprised to learn this, and planned a call to, I think, Simon & Schuster… Eller has also written a book about Bradbury and  A Barnes and Noble review of “Becoming Ray Bradbury” may be found here

Overall, another wonderful day at the KVML…

A couple final things: I read somewhere before that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper will burst into flame. Later I learned it’s actually 451 degrees Celsius at which paper combusts, but that Bradbury felt Fahrenheit sounded better as a title. I can’t remember where I read this, though. Can anyone confirm or deny? It’s interesting to note also that Bradbury was a steadfast supporter of “real” books over e-books, energetically opposing his own titles being released in electronic form. But – one can’t burn an e-book…

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4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    September 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Wonderful post, Jay! It’s been a gut instinct of mine for a while that Indianapolis is more literary than might first meet the eye.

    I also have debated (in my head) the pros and cons of ebooks vs traditional books when it comes to censorship. ebooks definitely come out on top when it comes to burning. But I can’t help but wonder, if anybody of less than noble intent “took over” the internet or satellites that controlled the internet if they would have complete control over ebooks? Maybe I’m thinking of The Hunger Games too much. I would concede that burning books has actually happened while this electronic “take over” has not (yet).

    Like

  2. Jay said,

    October 19, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I received an email comment from Dave, one of my colleagues at the KVML book club that I thought I’d share:

    “Reading your blog made me curious about the temperature at which paper ignites.  My late wife and I occasionally baked food wrapped in parchment and the parchment never burned at a fairly high temperature.   This site attempts to answer the question, but there seems to be some room for argument.
    451 Fahrenheit seems to be a good approximation, though other factors come into play.   Dave”

    http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/7501919888/m/26219740001

    Like

    • Jay said,

      April 13, 2013 at 11:44 am

      I have since received additional information on the Fahrenheit 451 question. Jonathan Eller is the director of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” and writes:

      “I can solve the Celsius and Fahrenheit mystery for you. Around January 1953, the L.A. fire station he called gave him 451 Fahrenheit as the combustion point for book paper. That’s the American title at date of publication, October 1953. In
      1955, the Danish first edition appeared with the title translated to
      the Celsius equivalent, 233 Celsius (the exact calibration is 232.9
      Celsius). So both titles are accurate. Subsequent Danish editions
      switched to Fahrenheit 451.”

      -Jay

      Like

  3. sakura said,

    October 1, 2014 at 6:20 am

    What an interesting post. It must have been amazing to meet someone who actually knew Bradbury. I thought the bit about the pedestrian was also very striking as it seems pretty relevant even now. And how unbelievable and scary is the book cover made with asbestos –

    Like


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