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

20120928-123020.jpg

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.) 🙂

20120928-122940.jpg

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.” )

20120928-122957.jpg

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

20120928-123029.jpg

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…

20120928-125021.jpg

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…

Advertisements

September Reading – The Month Ahead

What reading do I have planned for September? Let’s start with my “required reads.”

The Great Gatsby by. F. Scott Fitzgerald

20120904-072817.jpg

Yes, I’ve read this before (at least once) but my “Great Books” discussion group is reading this for our September meeting. We usually discuss shorter works, but we don’t meet over the summer and for September’s meeting it is traditional to read a novel. That’s what they tell me, anyway, I haven’t been a member for that long yet. 🙂

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

20120904-072830.jpg

This is the September selection for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club. In honor of “National Banned Books Week,” we read a book that has suffered the ignominy of being banned. Last year it was Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read this before too. Twice. It will be interesting to see what my fellow KVMLBC members, an intelligent group, will have to say about this one. I always learn a lot at these meetings. It’s a good choice, too, with Bradbury having just passed away earlier this year.

Speaking of re-reads, I’m doing a nostalgic re-read of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes – a favorite from my youth. Look for a post on this around the middle of the month. Fellow blogger Dale at Mirror with Clouds is also re-reading. Why not join us?

I’m also reading Pandora by Joanna Parypinski. A just-published first novel. After reading a short story of hers in an anthology a few months ago, I stumbled upon her blog and, since she is a graduate of Butler University (here in Indianapolis, just down the road from my office) thought I’d “support the home team” and read her book. I’ve already started and am enjoying it thus far.

20120904-072840.jpg

What else? Well, there are five Saturdays in September, and that is the day of the week I draw a card to pick which of my fifty-two scheduled short stories to read. The Queen of Diamonds led me, on September 1, to Maya Angelou’s “Reunion,” which I just posted about. Four more to go, though, and I look forward to learning which ones fate picks for me this month.

There’s also my neglected “Author Biography” 2012 reading project. I have a Charles Dickens bio (Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin) queued up in my e-reader, but haven’t been able to get into it yet.

20120904-072850.jpg

That’s about it for me. So, what are YOU reading in September. I’d love to hear about your reading plans…

-Jay

“The Exiles” by Ray Bradbury

What happens to fictional literary characters after a reader puts a book down? If through being read they had gained a type of existence – albeit temporary – how long does it last and by what means can it be sustained? I’ve actually pondered this question for years. I even once encouraged my second book club to come up with a “dramatis personae” of those character’s we’d thus far encountered – in hopes of “keeping them alive” a little longer. This idea was met with little interest, though. It turns out that Ray Bradbury was one of what I’m sure are many others who have contemplated this topic. In fact, he published a short story about it back in 1949…

The Exiles

I first read this story in August, 1994, singling it out for special recognition with two asterisks beside it in the table of contents of my trusty Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. When I started reading it again here in 2012, I had wholly forgotten the plot and most details, but upon re-reading I can see why I liked it. Indeed, I probably liked it more this second time around. Originally published on 9/15/49 in Maclean’s Magazine under the title, “The Mad Wizards of Mars”(see photo below)

20120702-074612.jpg

Bradbury envisions a future in the year 2120 where books dealing with horror and the supernatural have been banned or removed from circulation and destroyed. In this future, an exploring spaceship is headed to Mars and encounters “difficulties.” It is of little surprise to the reader, though, since the story opens on a shore of an empty Martian sea with Shakespeare’s three witches from Hamlet chanting incantations and practicing sympathetic magic in an attempt to destroy the approaching craft and its crew. You see, in this story, the planet Mars is where the fictional characters of supernatural literature – and even their deceased authors – have continued to exist “in exile.”

Recent years have been rough for them, however, as the destruction of their works on Earth has continued to weaken their power as the years have passed. They see the spaceship’s approach as a final siege of their very existence and something that must be stopped no matter the cost. One of these inhabitants (this one an author of supernatural tales) of Mars puts the premise of this tale rather eloquently:

“I wonder who I am. In what Earth mind tonight do I exist? In some African hut? Some hermit, reading my tales? Is he the lonely candle in the wind of time and science? The flickering orb sustaining me here in rebellious exile? Is it him? Or some boy in a discarded attic, finding me, only just in time!”

One can clearly see in this story some of the themes later fleshed out in Fahrenheit 451, which was published about three years after this story. One can also catch some glimpses of the technophobic side of Bradbury (somewhat shocking for a writer of sci-fi and fantasy). Indeed, one cannot find many of his works in electronic format, because he actively resisted their publication via that medium. I looked in vain (so far at least) for a copy of this story on line to link to here, but alas… This should not stop you from seeking it out in your neighborhood bookstores or in a collection of his shorter works. If you’re a fan of literature, you won’t be disappointed.

(“I went to the library three days a week for ten years.” – Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012)

20120702-074620.jpg