There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish /Italian/Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme. (Ray Bradbury, in the “Coda” of Farenheit 451).
This afternoon, I attended a wonderful discussion of Farenheit 451 led by Jonathan R. Eller, professor of English and Director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI at the Irvington Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library.
Dr. Eller’s presentation of the making of Farenheit 451 was extremely engaging, well organized and filled with personal stories from his relationship with Bradbury. I hope to soon visit the Bradbury center and reflect on this in future posts.
Years after Bradbury had published F-451 with Ballentine Books, in 1967, they approached him about publishing an “expurgated” version to be used in schools. Evidently Bradbury gave his consent without much considering the consequences. As Eller described, a “Murphy’s Law” error was made in the printing and for quite some time, the “unexpurgated” version of the book disappeared in print in the USA. Only when a class in Missouri discovered their version was different than their teacher’s older copy and wrote to Bradbury was the original restored.
In this case, the adaptations made for the expurgated text were basically to “clean up” the language – (removing words like “damn” and “hell”, “God” and “Christ” – when used as slang). Reflecting on the nature of censorship in his coda to later versions of F-451, however, Bradbury saw “the writing on the wall” and prophetically described how book burning happens in a pluralistic age (see quote above).
Usually when the topic of censorship, and book-banning is discussed we rail against ignorant religious fanatics who can’t stand enlightened ideas, expressive language, or diverse relationships. I contend that my own liberal education was just as effective at censoring texts – particularly classic religious texts – than any conservative body I know.
For God’s sake, I was a double major in English and theology and had enough courses in philosophy to be a minor and the sum total of my reading from the Bible was one assignment where we read in the story of Mary’s visitation (along with a commentary that suggested Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier). The book that is without a doubt the most influential text – certainly in Western civilization (and, I would argue, the world) was left out of the curriculum.
As Joseph Brodsky once wrote –
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”