Can Books Save our World?
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, March 11 / 19
One of the promises I made myself as I contemplated retirement over the past year was that I would read more, and make learning a priority in my senior years. It wasn’t that I thought I’d be saving the world, but rather that I’d be saving my brain and better understanding my world.
However, one of the books I put on my list, and just finished, assures me that the thoughts and writings of great thinkers and authors may indeed be called upon one day to do just that – save our world. I’ve just read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a small book of 180 pages that came out in the early 1950s, a product of the post-World War II and Cold War situation at the time, and of the recent appearance of television on the public scene.
Fahrenheit 451 appears on many high school and university curricula, but somehow I never had the occasion to read it. It tells the story of a “future world” where “firemen” don’t put out fires, but rather burn books and the homes of people who have them, arrest and execute people who are found with books or who exhibit similar “anti-social” behaviour, such as enjoying nature, going for walks, or asking philosophical questions.
Porches have been torn down and banned from houses so that people can’t sit and contemplate life and relationships. In place of books, homes have “televisions” the size of their living room walls (if they can afford it, covering all four walls), and citizens spend all their leisure time engrossed in the programs available, which would mostly qualify as soap operas or government propaganda.
There is also an underlying culture of violence that exists wherein people take drugs, go on murderous joyrides and commit suicide, we might think as a result of needing an outlet for their unfulfilled lives. In the background lies the shadow of possible nuclear war.
Thus, we are introduced to one particular “fireman,” Guy Montag, who throughout the course of this novel, goes from a happy book-burner to a hunted rebel. He is transformed by the few conscious individuals he meets and by his own latent love of books and the messages that come from the key books written over the course of history.
What the authorities tell Montag as they see him exhibiting anti-social behaviour is that books have been banned and burned because they only bring people sorrow. They tell him that books create conflict as not everyone subscribes to the same philosophy, and that the dreams for a better world found in books are unattainable and therefore should not be pursued.
The lady who sits in the easy chair next to mine, who I shared the gist of Fahrenheit 451 with, and who does not want to be identified in case the authorities are watching us, immediately said, “Oh, that’s just like today’s world!” Yes, we watch incredible amounts of television or its derivatives, spend an eternity on Facebook and its cousins, and fewer people, especially young people, read books or other serious material.
Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which paper burns, was a product of its time – dominated by thoughts of war, dictatorship and technological “progress” – that is, the Cold War, the Soviet Empire and television. It was also a product of its author, Ray Bradbury, who dearly loved the philosophers and authors who created and enhanced our civilization. In his afterword to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, he tells of how as a poverty-stricken young author, he had to rent a typewriter in a local library at ten cents per half hour to type out his manuscript.
No less today, do we face a variety of forms of dictatorships, whether in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave or in newly-created Russian and Chinese global powers. We also see a growth of intolerance throughout our Western World that rivals the dark days of Nazism, and violent conflict around the world over religion and philosophy, and over wealth and resources. Meanwhile, people, especially the young, have their lives dominated by technological devices and the discourse that comes from shallow thinking and busy but meaningless lives.
I think what Bradbury is saying in his book is that there is a minority of people who love deep thinking, nature and human relationships, and that they will be the salvation of our world when war comes and our environment is near collapse, and that we must nurture them and join them, rather than ignore or put them down.
This is a memorable read and, hopefully, one that we can continue to learn from.
Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of The Marquis Project and former Coordinator for Fair Trade Manitoba.
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