You can’t talk about banned books without talking about Ray Bradbury. Not so much because any one of his more than 500 published works have been banned or challenged more vehemently than other frequently challenged books, but because he wrote so passionately and urgently about societies without books, without intellectual freedom, and the dire consequences they faced as a result. But, believe it or not, Bradbury’s greatest fear regarding censorship, wasn’t crushing government laws or sweeping totalitarian regimes, it was you.
Bradbury, a staunch advocate for libraries and vocal opponent of censorship of all kinds, unsurprisingly had strong words for those who would amend books for greater mass appeal, or, more importantly, to avoid offending any one particular group of people or another. Though book banning was a common theme in his work, in real life, it wasn’t big-brother top-down censorship that concerned him most, but the kind of insidious censorship that is brewed from the bottom up, from apathy, or distraction, or pressure from special-interest groups.
Bradbury was worried, perhaps occasionally to a fault, that technology was dumbing down society, and this was decades before reality TV and pseudo-celebrity driven media. He presciently described futures where people disconnected from each other with technology that allowed them to block out the world around them. He wrote about societies that stopped perceiving the value of reading. As people’s attention is consumed by mobile devices, as support for public libraries across the country disintegrates and schools face crippling budget cuts, and as publishers shrink and consolidate and local bookshops disappear, it seems we are dangerously close to realizing Bradbury’s grim predictions of a world without books. But to Bradbury’s mind, we have only ourselves to blame.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”—Ray Bradbury, The Seattle Times
Bradbury certainly had personal experience with traditional censorship. Many of his books and short stories have been challenged throughout the years, the most ironically, of course, being Fahrenheit 451. Though certainly not challenged as often as its dystopian brethren Brave New World and 1984, Fahrenheit 451 has had steady opposition since its 1953 publication. The irony of banning a book about banned books seems to be lost on the (let’s assume well-intended) parents and educators challenging it. However, the most egregious censorship of Fahrenheit 451 was actually committed by its publisher (more on that in a moment).
The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories and perhaps Bradbury’s second most famous work, has also faced a lifetime of formal challenges. Complaints generally had to do with language, in most cases, “taking the lord’s name in vain” and mild swearing. Some challenges, however, concern incendiary language of a different sort. Complaints from parents at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Edison, New Jersey in 1998 cited racist language used (by racists) in “Way Up in the Air.” In “Way Up in the Air,” a story about a group of black citizens who want to start their own colony on Mars and the opposition they face from their white neighbors, Bradbury was trying to paint a picture of ignorant men and highlight the blatant hate and racial inequality prevalent in his time. To remove the language of the racists—one of their most widely wielded weapons—is to neuter the story’s emotional impact. Yet, versions of the story in later editions of The Martian Chronicles omitted the objectionable words.
Some of Bradbury’s other short stories have met opposition too, for example, “The Veldt” (1950), a grim story about the dark, dehumanizing underbelly of technology, with a dollop of parricide to keep you on your toes. In 2006, concerns were raised about the moral message of “The Veldt,” since there was no recourse for children’s homicidal actions. Basically, evil went unchecked and some parents thought that might send the wrong message to students. Because, you know, that never happens in real life (insert your own ironic links here or simply visit the news source of your choice for examples to the contrary).
But Fahrenheit 451 remains Bradbury’s poster child for censorship. Though written during the McCarthy era, when mass censorship and the homogenization of thought was a very real threat, Fahrenheit 451 was not explicitly intended as political statement. It draws most of its critical heat for its “offensive language” (an assortment of “damns” and “God damns” that seem timid to my New York City-scarred ears) and for the fact that the Bible is one of many books burned in the novel. The rub here being that the Bible is so valuable an artifact on the black market in Montag’s world, that he is able to coerce an accomplice into cooperating by tearing just five pages from the book (threatening to destroy one of the only surviving copies in their world).
In response to some of the objections, Ballantine (Fahrenheit 451’s publisher at the time) created a highly edited high school edition of the book in the late 1960s, removing words like “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion,” and changing some plot points. At first, both versions of the book were being printed, but gradually (through a publisher error) only the censored version was being printed by 1973. This continued for most of the 70s until a group of high school students wrote to Bradbury question the differences between their school editions of the book and older ones. Ballantine corrected the mistake, but Bradbury addressed this censorship, and censorship in general, in a fiery coda added to the corrected reprints:
“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 / FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.”
In Fahrenheit 451, in his turning point speech to Montag, Captain Beatty follows this idea through to its natural conclusion—a society without books or critical thought, governed by self-censorship and cultivated ignorance.
“Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.”
Bradbury is not advocating for the silencing of challenging voices or dissent, rather that those challenging opinions be answered with new art, new writing, “The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws…For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit.”
To Bradbury, if artists catered to individual demands, trying to please and appease every man, woman, and child, the resulting sterility of their creations would be the biggest threat to intellectual freedom. Through his work and advocacy, he warns us not to succumb to the pressure of conformity, neither in the creation nor consumption of art, particularly in books.
Be it literal or metaphorical, only you can prevent a book burning...only you.