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Let’s Build a Bonfire Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 29 January 2014

One of the presents my wife gave me this Christmas was a book I’d never gotten around to reading: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451I devoured it right away, along with her blueberry pie.

The novel is named for the temperature at which paper burns. Its hero, Guy Montag, is a “fireman.” His job is to burn books and the homes that shelter them. By the end of the novel, though, Montag has become a book-man himself, joining a group of hobos who preserve books by memorizing chapters. So the first book of the Aeneid might be walking on the railroad tracks in Ohio, while the second might be loitering at the Staten Island docks. 

Common opinion has it that Fahrenheit 451 is about government censorship, especially during the McCarthy Era. Not so. Bradbury himself insisted that the novel had very little to do with censorship.  Montag’s chief, Beatty – a strange malignant fellow who knows a great deal about what is in those old books, especially Shakespeare – says that people had stopped reading books long before the firemen began to burn them.  Bradbury was describing what he saw happening around him, just as in 1984 George Orwell modeled the evil Ministry of Truth after his employer, the BBC. 

In other words, there’s more than one way to burn a book. I’ve recently received a letter from a fellow who calls himself a Restorer: he restores old songs by singing them, and old books by reading them. We burn books when we consign them to the slow silent fire of decay and oblivion, or the more sinister fire of contempt and hatred.

I met a book-burner at my school.  She came to our English department to propose cross-listing a course on fairy tales. She’s a feminist who loathes the fairy tales she teaches.  She said to us, quite innocently, that she’s wanted to give up the whole thing, but then she turns on the television and realizes with horror that they, the fairy tales, are back. 

The woman’s work is never done: to instill suspicion of Cinderella in her students; to interrogate (her word) those Seven Dwarfs; to uncover the Secret Plot of Walter Mitty; to rip the clothes off Hans Christian Anderson.

She has plenty of comrades in the book-burning business. Bradbury once said that if Mormons didn’t like his plays, they could write their own damned plays if they wanted.  He saw the smarmy effeminacy of political and cultural touchiness. 

But there is, notably, no obscenity in Fahrenheit 451.And the one book that Guy Montag commits to memory is Ecclesiastes, along with passages from Revelation.  Bradbury was not expressing his fear that Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Playboy would crackle in the flames.  He was persuaded that the Bible and Milton and Johnson and Keats and the great heritage of the humanities in the west were already being pitched into the incinerator. 

Those incinerators were burning in high schools and colleges across the country. 
     They still are. Suppose, when you choose a syllabus for an English class, your primary concern is neither the intrinsic excellence of the works, nor their historical and cultural influence. You want to placate bored students – so you assign “graphic novels,” or sloppily written stuff about teenage warts. 

Mark Twain wrote about the burning of Joan of Arc; you are burning Mark Twain. Suppose your concern is “diversity,” and you assign boilerplate political works, or forgettable short stories by authors with the desired ethnicities.  You have sent down the memory hole genuinely great writers whom the students might have remembered for the rest of their lives.  You have consigned Melville to a whaling museum. You have sent Milton packing to the fires below, to wail and gnash his teeth.

Or suppose you’re the authors of the Common Core Curriculum – absurdly named, unless “Core” is to be understood verbally, analogous with peel, pit, shell, bone, brain, and gut, that is, to take the core out of, as from an apple. 

For there is no core in it; no sense that all students ought to learn about the tradition of English literature; no sense that authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and Dickens are essential for a truly literate reader of English.  Indeed, the Corers show little interest in poetry, and value reading only for the acquisition of certain supposed “skills.”

That’s not only to burn books. It’s to burn the brains that might read the books.  Read Fahrenheit 451. The first person who leads Montag away from his evil life is a teenage girl whom we never see with a book. Instead she does a lot of sitting and thinking, or simply being. She likes to go out in the rain and taste the raindrops on her tongue.  She enjoys the leisure that Montag’s second adviser, a retired professor, says is necessary for the true reading of books. 

When Montag replies that people get a lot of time off, the professor says that that’s not the same thing.  Leisure is that calm silent space away from work and the incessant noise and banality of the modern world. 

The Corers know nothing of such leisure.  They reduce everything to the workplace and the voting booth.  It doesn’t occur to them that one reads Milton to learn about life, about men and women, about human frailty and the grace of God – as it doesn’t occur to them that people have souls.

They’d do well to hang around Bradbury’s hobos, who are walking emblems of what books are for. It’s impossible to commit a book to memory without making it in some fashion your own; without becoming an embodiment of its wisdom.  Books are for fully realized human beings, not for workers merely or appetite-gratifiers or voters.  The great books are filled with wisdom, often challenging and troubling, for people who seek to be wise. 

In their hearts those great books burn, and are not consumed.

 
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
 
 
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written by Chris in Maryland, January 29, 2014
Great essay...gonna read "451." I am just now reading to Josef Pieper and his "Leisure - the Basis of Culture," which is hinted at here.

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in England was a pageant that demonstrates the intended effect of "common core."

A nation owning the legacy of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austin et al chose to celebrate...The National Health Service.

It was the triumph of the proletariat on the world stage - the two millionaire proletarian news-speakers from NBC gushed with admiration - the summit of the "progressive" imagination.

Let's all sing: "Imagine there's no memory, it isn't hard to do...."
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written by Sue, January 29, 2014
Google "Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization" to see how USCCB is dangling over the Dark Site (Common Core).
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, January 29, 2014
Thank God (truly!) for photocopiers. Most of the literature I teach my students is in the public domain, so promoting Western civilization is quite easy.

I also vote in school board elections. It's a lonely experience. Do you vote?
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, January 29, 2014
"...a teenage girl whom we never see with a book. Instead she does a lot of sitting and thinking, or simply being. She likes to go out in the rain and taste the raindrops on her tongue."

The psychologist who gave me my first professional job related to me a story about an event that happened at the psychiatric hospital where we both worked.

There was a team of bureaucrats sent by some State agency in New York to do a time study of the distribution of activities engaged in my various professional groups during a typical workaday week. The surveyer would show up at random times of the day and inquire of him what the nature of the task was that he was engaged in at that moment. She would then categorize that task among the universe of things that one might do during the course of one's professional life.

On this one occasion in particular, she again inquired what he was doing. He said that he was "thinking." She had a puzzled look on her face and confessed that she did not have a category for that particular activity.
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written by Jim, January 29, 2014
1.I took Junior Great Books in 1963 -- they included Sophocles and Plato's Republic. My wife taught Junior Great Books in 1990. What a drastic change. The 1990 materials were contemporary and dark. She stopped.
2.Augustine's City of God cites so many authors of works that were hundreds years old in 400 AD!
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written by Beth Impson, January 29, 2014
Tony, how could you have missed F451 all these years?! I sometimes teach it in my 111 class; it is indeed prophetic (even down to the ubiquitous earbuds). I am sending this column to my Liberal Arts students, as this is exactly what we have been talking about as the term begins.
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written by grump, January 29, 2014
Well done, Tony. It got me to thinking that with the propane shortage and the problems many Americans are having staying warm this winter that shivering families could burn the 2,100-page ObamaCare bill and copies of the U.S. tax code, at 50,000 pages, and heat their homes for quite a while.
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written by william manley, January 29, 2014
The sad reality is that a good liberal arts education has become frightfully expensive (how much does your university cost per year, Professor Esolen?). As a result, parents and prospective students look at education in purely financial returns. No one wants to be saddled with the significant burden of student loan debt at a young age. Therefore more and more they choose to invest in courses of study that will lead to careers that are financially rewarding. That is one factor for the growing neglect of the Western Canon. The diversity movement is another factor. The "great books" are largely the work of privileged white males who intentionally or unwittingly wrote to oppress women and minorities...or so the propaganda goes. Next, we are in a post print world. Look at the growth of the graphic novel as a serious resource collection (along with video games) in public libraries. Finally, there is the absolute relativism point...."my beach book is equal in importance to Paradise Lost because it has more value for me." Look at the amount of money libraries waste on multiple copies of bestsellers while the classics get "deselected" because they are not read. This is the reality. These are dark days indeed . Bradbury got it right.
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written by Rich in MN, January 29, 2014
@Chris in Maryland,
Oh my goodness, you sure have stirred up a lot of rather surreal, "flotsam and jetsam" memories from the Summer Olympic opening ceremonies -- topped off by that paean to humanism, par excellence, "Imagine."

Someone once said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Well, that someone said it in Aramaic, but I think the English translation of the Greek translation gets the idea across well enough. If only there was a linguist in the room to confirm this....) And, conversely, where our treasure is NOT, those areas atrophy and die a sad death of attrition. I had the great privilege many years ago, as part of the University of Minnesota chorus, of singing Verdi's "Requiem" under the direction of Robert Shaw (director of the Atlanta Choral). Verdi's "Requiem" is a 'tour de force' of the human condition, grappling with the deepest human angst and longing. By the end of the piece, we realize that we are the ones who are lost, we are the ones who are dying. In exhaustion and desperation we cry out to the only one who can help us, the only one who can rescue us, as we sing, "Salva me, Fons Pietatis. Salva me, salva me, Fons Pietatis. Salva me, salva me, salva me...."

If I were to ask 100 people on the street which composer they find more powerful, John Lennon or Giuseppe Verdi, 99 would say, "Who is that second guy?" and the hundredth person would be lying to cover their ignorance. The same would probably be true if I were to ask who was the deeper writer, JD Salinger or GK Chesterton -- Who the heck is that second guy????

The match has been lit and dropped on the collected wisdom of our past. We have reinvented the wheel and it is misshapen. Our ocean of knowledge is 1000 miles wide but only 6 inches deep. Six inches deep -- that is where our treasure lies....
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written by John, January 29, 2014
Tony et al.,
I have six children attending the local Catholic school. The oldest is in fourth grade. It is my experience that the popular books fall into the Captain Underpants series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or the "low-nutritional" stuff from the Scholastic Book Club.
We are trying to develop our our junior classics library at home.
Ebay has many old sets for sale....not sure which are good. Any suggestions?
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written by Stanley Anderson, January 29, 2014
Great books and great art of all kinds can do many different wonderful things for the reader/viewer. Often, they make me want to “be there” in some sense. And this is certainly a good thing. But there is an even more important aspect that I notice in myself (my wife recognizes it too, though I’m not sure it is a universal sense – it is at least common enough to mention though, I think). That is a desire that the great book or art inflames in me to want to write a book myself or paint a picture or perform. It doesn’t much matter that I may be perfectly dreadful at it if I were to actually try and take up the particular art form. Even just the intense desire to want to somehow “join in” or participate (or become the embodiment, as you wrote), not only in the reception of the art, but in the very act of its creation is, I think, an important part of the soul and life and wisdom that you write of. As you suggest in your last sentence, we become something more than simply “consume”-ers.
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written by Athanasius, January 29, 2014
I recently finished "The Book Thief". A well-written contemporary book that takes place in Nazi Germany. There is a part of the book where there is a book burning in the town square. The little heroine manages to rescue a book from the ashed after everyone has left. She comes to realize how powerful words are, and how they can be used for bad, as done by Hitler, or for good. It is a powerful story. I recommend it.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, January 29, 2014
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

("Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too." — Almansor, Heinrich Heine, 1821)
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written by Stanley Anderson, January 29, 2014
(I meant to add above that my soul burns with a consuming fire at this very moment for some of that homemade blueberry pie! I expect any book, no matter how trivial would be enhanced by the combination.)
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written by Abby, January 29, 2014
William Manley, a good liberal arts education might not be as expensive as you think. There are some intensive liberal-arts schools that will work with you. I have three kids at Thomas More College in New Hampshire who are getting through with little or no debt--and believe me, it's not because we're contributing much money to their tuition! Look into the small Catholic liberal arts schools, and don't assume the figures listed for tuition and room and board mean much.
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written by Mark, January 29, 2014
Well done, Prof. Esolen. I forwarded the article's link to the faculty and staff where I teach.

I do have some hope that all is not lost. My son is a junior in high school. He's currently reading Paradise Lost. He's also studying Oedipus Rex. I am both proud and shamed. I've never read Paradise Lost, and I haven't seriously touched Oedipus since high school, and then I wasn't all that serious.
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written by Stanley Anderson, January 29, 2014
Rich wrote (echoed by many of the replies here), “The match has been lit and dropped on the collected wisdom of our past.”

There is a humorous line that runs “You know you’re a history fan when you still get upset thinking about the Library of Alexandria.” So sad to think that that library may be as a notepad grocery list tossed into the fireplace in comparison.
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written by william manley, January 29, 2014
Abby, because I am a strong advocate of the Great Books course of study, which is what I took in college 45 years ago, I am aware of the great work that Thomas More College is doing to make a liberal arts education affordable. They have stripped alway all the non academic expenses and focused their curriculum on the basics of the Western Canon. As a result, students have a unique opportunity to read, learn, and think under the guidance of dedicated teachers who put them first. Ironically, this approach, which focuses on the past, might be the model for the future for the liberal arts. Let's hope so anyway.
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written by DJK, January 29, 2014
Tony, thank you for such a wonderful column!
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written by Lee McKenna, January 29, 2014
A Restorer! What a wonderful idea and what a wonderful vocation! Who will join us in restoring old songs and rereading old books?
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written by Beth, January 29, 2014
Thank you, Dr. Esolen for another great article to share. And thank you Stanley Anderson. I only wish you and your wife were our neighbors. If so, I'd send over my nine year old to recite Columbus by Joaquin Miller. In working on his memorization, we have spent a good deal of time tasting the salt wave, imagining the fear, and dreaming of being so brave. You would appreciate it!
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written by Militaris Artifex, January 29, 2014
A marvelous article, Professor Esolen, the more so because it does raise troubling questions about the future.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
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written by Brad Miner, January 29, 2014
Just now watching "Schindler's List." Stern (Ben Kingsley) is trying to recruit workers for Oskar Schindler's factory. One of them tells a capo that he is a writer. Stern quickly corrects him -- he's a metal worker -- because he knows that the Nazis look upon writers and literature as "non-essential," which designation is a death sentence.
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written by Nancy de Flon, January 29, 2014
Oh, yes indeed, Tony, the use of "interrogate" in the way you quote it here is the latest in academic jargon, didn't you know? "the smarmy effeminacy of political and cultural touchiness" -- that phrase is a masterpiece. So is this blog post. Keep up your wonderful, courageous work, Tony.
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written by Marie Therese, January 30, 2014
Hurra! I am sharing this my students who will be studying English literature next year (forgoing the extra points awarded to those studying physics and chemistry).

The tragedy in this is that the victims - today's (and yesterday's) youth - have no understanding of what this discussion is about. Like Plato's allegory of the cave, they cannot comprehend that the shadows aren't the real thing, that there is something 'real' out there. The shadows have become so easy and attractive - instant, titillating, communal.

It is a master-minded crime when the victims don't even know one has been committed.
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written by Ireneus, January 30, 2014
'Fahrenheit' readers will most likely see some parallels in 'The Book Thief' by M Zusak. I'm bot referring to actual burnings but to the exalting effects of story-telling and the redemption that happens when we see the souls behind emaciated faces and the persistency of humanity under inhuman conditions - each time a book is burgled from the jaw of indifference.
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written by Layman Tom, January 30, 2014
Thanks Tony! Your piece got me to thinking. I have not read enough of the classics. I’m pretty well rounded, but to be truly rounded, you have to keep digesting new knowledge and my appetite for literature is something that I have let languish. I will start anew with this very book as soon as I can.

From your synopsis, it seems very much like the natural prequel to a movie that came out a few years ago, The Book of Eli. Not sure if you saw it, but I can see the natural evolution of the world of 451 into the world of Eli maybe a couple of decades hence. In the movie, there has been an “event”. The govt. had taken over. At some point, all books were destroyed and outlawed. Eventually, society collapsed and devolved into a Mad Max type of frontier world. Eli has in his possession, a book. He’s heard of an enclave where men are free and in which the world’s last remaining books are protected. So, he is on a quest to make his way there and deliver this cherished book. The movie chronicles his journey. Now, lest anyone think this is a tender story, I can say there is an abundant supply of gratuitous violence, blood and explosions. Yet for all that, I still cannot believe this movie got made in today’s day and age. It draws very clear distinctions between good and evil. It pits beauty and knowledge vs. ignorance and maleficence and is a very positive story of God’s providence to those who believe in Him.

I just hope we are not today living out the prequel to Fahrenheit 451.
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written by Sara Baker, January 30, 2014
I love what you say about F451 and the value of old literature. I think, though, that you've taken a rather gratuitous swipe at Common Core, which neither prescribes nor proscribes any reading selections--those are up to whoever creates the curriculum for the school. The Common Core does emphasize the skills needed to read complex text, which is exactly what students lack and why they find the old literature daunting. So let's keep them reading the works that have proven their worth, celebrate the new works that "hold a mirror up to life," and get on with the task!
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written by Achilles, January 30, 2014
Sara Baker, dear, you must not understand the Common Core, there is nothing benign about it, especially where literature and literacy are concerned. There is no baby to throw out with the bath water. This was not a gratuitous swipe, but an informed set of comments that don't quite get at the depth of the depravity that is the Common Core. You can not tell me a good thing about, and what you said about "curriculum" is not true, but it is truly propaganda.
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written by Tom, NC, January 30, 2014
There's an odd echo of F451 in Dalrymple's (real-life) observation of a burned-book society, "I think this is what a student of English at the North Korean Foreign Languages Institute was driving at when he sidled up to me in Pyongyang and said, quickly and sotto voce (for unscripted communication with foreigners was dangerous for North Koreans), “Reading Shakespeare and Dickens is the greatest, the only, joy of my life.”"

And, as a bonus, the column I found this in showed Dickens taking aim at the Common Core with the opening lines of Hard Times (here after Dalrymple's comments):

The principal bearers of the doctrine are Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. Gradgrind is a teacher whose statement of pedagogical philosophy is surely one of the greatest opening passages of any novel ever written:

"Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

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