Ray Bradbury (1920 – June 5, 2010) “We are a democracy of readers.”

“We are a democracy of readers” Bradbury in 1995. UPI file photo.

Ray Bradbury will probably be remembered most for his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, a book about a fireman. Not the kind who puts fires out, but the kind who burns books. But Bradbury’s fingerprints are all over our shared culture, especially if you are numbered among baby boomers who grew up watching horror and sci-fi B-movies. In fact, horror mogul Stephen King acknowledged his debt to Bradbury on his website the day after Bradbury’s death. “Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories,” King said. “One of the latter was called ‘A Sound of Thunder.’ The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant’s footsteps fading away.”

But Bradbury was more than just a sci-fi / horror sort of guy. In second grade, I was introduced to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick when my mother took me to see the movie starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart: the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury. In college, I read a novel called Dandelion Wine, written by Ray Bradbury. In 1983, I took my children to see Something Wicked This Way Comes, a movie based on a book by Ray Bradbury.  I knew him, though I never met him.

What follows is a review of Fahrenheit 451which was written for this blogsite in March of 2012 by John Paul Jaramillo, a professor at Lincoln Land Community College. I believe it is an appropriate homage to Bradbury, whose most famous novel carried a subtle warning about censorship and society and reminded us that we are a “democracy of readers,” and that “we should keep it that way.”

Fahrenheit 451 and Banning Books

Review by John Paul Jaramillo

The inspiration for Ray Bradbury’s classic novel came from a simple walk alongside a friend. He was asked by a policeman what he thought he was doing out late at night, to which he replied, I am putting one foot in front of the other. The anger from the incident motivated the young writer to create the short titled “The Pedestrian” and later more stories following a lone man simply walking in a motorized, fast paced society, which grew into his ‘dime novel’ Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury is a visionary of the highest sort. As purely a visionary as George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. And Fahrenheit 451 is a warning, a message to Americans concerning the oppression of intellectual thought. A vision of a world where firemen—government agents—become “censors, judges, and executioners.” Their rules are simple:

1. Answer the alarm swiftly
2. Start the fire swiftly
3. Burn Everything.
4. Report back to firehouse.
5. Stand alert for other alarms.

Bradbury’s vision is of a future where intellectual thought and also critical literacy have been suppressed. It is a place where the individual lacks the literacy to engage in the democratic process, and where complex topics such as ethnic identity have been discouraged. Bradbury’s Captain Beatty lectures Montag, arguig vehemently in favor of burning books:

You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and the cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.”

My students at the Midwest community college read these lines and argue that Bradbury is against a culture of overt political correctness and censorship, while I argue the point is much larger. Montag’s critical literacy builds through the course of the novel and the man’s fall serves as Bradbury’s example of the individual becoming aware of the greater world and the failing sense of humanity and empathy.

My students also argue that the dangers in Bradbury’s book are the past. Like Nazi fascism and Russia’s authoritarian state. But as I write this post, Mexican American students in Arizona labeling themselves librotraficante, or book traffickers, prepare to embark on a week long road trip from Houston to Tucson where they will distribute banned books from their truck. Tony Diaz, a Houston Community College professor and founder of the nonprofit Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, devised the book-toting caravan with others in response to the dissolution of the Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District, reports Hispanic Business.com. They argue the conservative school district has engaged in semantic games in their assertion they have not banned such books as Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire—texts that touch young Latino lives closely. These are also titles that conservative forces believe are un-American and have also banned from classrooms. Perhaps the dangers of Fahrenheit 451’s imagined world remain alive and among us no matter the government and prove the strength of Bradbury’s vision.

The wisdom of a novelist or writer is so often hype, but in Bradbury’s work I return again and again to find pleasure in the reading and pleasure in the principles on literacy. “We are a democracy of readers,” Bradbury argues in an online NEA interview, “and we should keep it that way.”

John Paul Jaramillo is an Associate Professor of English in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College. 

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