by T. Gail Pritchard, Ph.D., The University of Arizona
There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).
I started reminiscing about books I’ve read featuring book burnings, book challenges, and book bannings. Two immediately came to mind: Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Le Guin’s Voices.
I have to start out with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. My mother (and later I) taught high school English. One of the courses she developed was a science fiction course that juniors and seniors could take. Like my mother, I was a big fan of science fiction, so she “test-ran” the selected novels and short stories on my 9th grade self, and Fahrenheit 451 was one of those novels. I remember thinking this is a perfect example of irony . . . firefighters starting fires–and in particular, starting fires to burn books; not to mention the main character becomes curious about books, starts reading them, gets caught, and has to burn his own house down, before fleeing to the exiles in the forest who memorize books for the day of their return. About the same time, I read 1984 and it struck me how fear is a central theme in both books. Years later and an English teacher, then later as a children’s literature professor, I began to realize the relationship between fear and censorship is a critical one. When looking at why particular books are challenged or banned, it is generally because someone is afraid reading that particular book will in some way negatively influence the reader. Think about that for a minute. That’s putting a LOT of power into one book—be it picture book or novel . . . It seems to me a book is simply (forgive me) words on a page; it’s what the reader does with those words—think—that seems to be the problem. Perhaps it is thinking that should be banned . . .
Running with that thought, the relationships between books, words, thinking, and fear, I move on to my next remembered novel, Voices by Ursula Le Guin. Talk about a novel featuring the suppression of thought! This book has it all, and just in case you are not familiar with it, Le Guin writes about a society where a university town, Ansul, is overtaken in war and ruled by a religious group, the Alds, who do their best to suppress thought—books are destroyed, learning is banished, gender equity is outlawed, and women are brutalized. The story begins seventeen years later when the main character, Mermer, is chafing under the regime. Mermer discovers a hidden room full of books—all that remains of Ansul’s once great library. Under the tutelage of the Waylord of Ansul, her mentor, she develops her own literacy skills and vows to protect the hidden library alongside her mentor. Mermer meets the storyteller and poet, Orrec, and his wife—two characters introduced in the first novel of this series, Gifts. In talking about Mermer and her relationship with Orrec, Le Guin states, “people certainly can learn–or relearn—‘their truth’ from poetry or story, but the meaning will always be the truth they seek whether it is freedom from twisted meanings, half-truths, lies, or advertising” (retrieved 10.22.12: http://www.harcourtbooks.com/Voices/interview.asp#top). The truth Mermer learns is how those that fear try to suppress and that liberty comes from knowledge—it’s difficult to control the well-read…
My mother and I talked a lot about books, my dad and I talked about world events, and we always had dinner conversations about our role as global citizens. My job was to be a learner, a thinker. I did that through reading; and I always kept in mind two things Dad said about reading: Read into your weakness and read those you disagree with alongside those with whom you agree. It was through those early experiences and reading novels like Fahrenheit 451 and Voices, I learned to think about the words I read (and heard). And so, borrowing from Frank Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger?, I leave it with all of you: Which is to be feared—the words in a book or the thinking about those words?
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