“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Even now, when I read it, the first sentence of Fahrenheit 451 gives rise to goosebumps. No one sentence from any novel has helped shape my writing life; no one sentence epitomizes Banned Books Week and its protective purpose.
As I’ve grown older and hopefully wiser, I still see the power in that first sentence but also now the import of the one that immediately follows. “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.” Books possess knowledge and finding pleasure in knowledge’s destruction echoes the very anti-intellectualism that flourishes today in America. Anti-intellectualism is not a new thing—Ray Bradbury saw it rise many decades ago as well—but the trumping of facts with emotion that we’ve seen in American politics over the last twenty years and especially during this presidential election cycle has become a threat of gravest proportions.
The truth gets eaten, blackened, and changed. In its place? Fact-less emotion that can be easily controlled in the capable hands of those in power. No book highlights that danger more than Fahrenheit 451.
As a sixteen year old reading Bradbury’s dystopian masterpiece for the first time, I lived that danger every day. I grew up in a rurality that would stun even the staunchest conservative and knowledge did not factor into daily decisions, especially political ones. And yet, Fahrenheit 451 found its way to me, Guy Montag’s journey from book burner to champion of books shattering those cultural chains that bound me.
I became my own thinker. I relied on evidence. I embraced mindfulness.
All because of one book.
Bradbury wasn’t done with me though. By the time I read Fahrenheit 451, I was already a voracious reader. Yet for the first time finishing a book, I wanted a sequel to it. There wasn’t one so I sat down and began writing my own…
While that sequel went nowhere beyond a few pages of poorly written prose, the seeds of writing had been planted within.
By Bradbury’s hand.
The Twin Towers had fallen.
The days were dark. Religious extremism had attacked us. Police dogs searched through the rubble of twisted steel and broken concrete. Dust clung to the air; some aspect of it still hasn’t settled. Our shared humanity bridged the political aisle and, for no matter how brief a time, we were the United States of America.
In September 2001, I helped manage one of the largest Barnes & Noble Booksellers, a massive two-story literary haven with a large mezzanine cafe boasting enough caffeine to keep the whole of Seattle awake. One of my favorite places, it was like a second home. I was not the only one who felt that way. We had a large customer-base, some of whom you’d recognize as Hollywood actors, Billboard musicians, professional athletes, and others in the lime-light.
It was also the neighborhood bookstore of Bill and Melinda Gates. They patronized the shelves and shelves of books we maintained, always coming into the store late at night just before closing—undoubtedly for privacy.
I will never forget the first time Bill Gates came in after 9/11.
He was wearing white tennis shoes, simple slacks, a light sweater, and his characteristic wry smile. Melinda ventured elsewhere in the store, on her own quest. He asked me for the section on Islamic Studies. I had a hard time hiding my surprise. Political rhetoric had already heated up about Islam—some people calling for the banning of Islam’s holy book—and here was a man worth billions asking for information about Islam. Why would he want that?
I guided him to the correct section—at the time, only a shelf, one that would eventually over the next year become an entire bay of books. In the ignorance of my mid-twenties, I just had to open my mouth. “I guess you want to read these before the Quran is banned.”
He looked at me with that trademark smile . “No. This is America. We don’t ban books.” He paused, selecting one. “Thank you for your help.”
And with that dismissal, he gained his perusing privacy and gave me something to think about.
The lessons I had learned from reading Fahrenheit 451 returned in a rush. And I realized I knew very little about world religions and specifically about Islam. I would read A History of God by Karen Armstrong and then buy a Quran that week, a book banned in several countries, one that Guy Montag undoubtedly burned many times.
Now, in my writing, there is always a component of religious strife. It is my way of wrestling with tough questions we are faced with. I do not practice Islam but that moment with Bill Gates is where I chose to broaden my knowledge.
I wish more people would do the same.
A few months later, I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
Happenstance did not bring it to me. By that time, I had been the webmaster for bestselling author Terry Brooks two years, having taken the job in 1999. Terry reads widely, from history to mysteries to the daily newspapers. He reads fantasy and young adult as well, enjoying what other writers are doing in his chosen field. He brings impeccable taste and high standards to most corners of his life, so when he recommends a book to me, I know it to be something truly special.
When he told me to read The Golden Compass, I picked up a copy that day. I quickly saw why he wanted me to read it. It is one of those rare books that comes along every so often, with compelling characters, an overarching plot where not only the world is at stake but the souls of those involved as well, and all placed within an enchanting world just similar enough to our own to be allegorical.
It is the power of that allegory that I found most fascinating, how it enraged numerous religious institutions, primarily in England but also in the United States. “My books are about killing God,” Pullman has said in interviews. “If there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.” He has since said that he feels the same way about other religions as well. It is not surprising then that certain religious groups have called for banning The Golden Compass and its sequels.
The attempted suppression of thought by some religious leaders is the key to how The Golden Compass shaped my life. Just like with the Quran, I saw Fahrenheit 451 all over again, but it wasn’t one religion trying to outlaw another religion. It was a religion trying to censor not only creativity but carefully-wrought criticism.
I saw it all come together then. In their imagined protection of others, book banners crack open a door that could easily lead to Guy Montag’s world.
There are, of course, many different groups who attempt to ban books. Their reasons are as varied as they are. Religious extremism and the anti-intellectualism that often precludes it is my proverbial cross to bear in my own writing, so to speak. What is yours?
I’m pleased these books are still available.
Let’s hope it is never a pleasure to burn them.