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Let’s Build a Bonfire


One of the presents my wife gave me this Christmas was a book I’d never gotten around to reading: Ray Bradbury’s [1]Fahrenheit 451 [1]I 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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.