I got a letter last week from a friend, Sister Margaret Quinlan, who lives amidst the beauty of the St. Mary-of-the-Woods campus. Besides the email space and the time she invests in describing the flowers and trees and birds that she shares with her roomies out there, as well as her accounts of teaching and traveling, Margaret most often writes about books. She loves them, and she knows I do, too.
It may be a strange comparison, but Margaret reminds me of the great science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, not because she is white-headed or writes stories about Martians and mystically tattooed men, but because she owns a most inquisitive mind.
She is interested in just about everything, and I imagine that, as Bradbury once said of himself, she is a “graduate of the library.”
This year, the Vigo County Public Library has partnered with a number of area businesses and organizations — including this newspaper — to sponsor the “Wabash Valley Big Read,” and Bradbury’s great “Fahrenheit 451” is their book of choice. I couldn’t be happier, for that book is really about the value of all books.
I have not read as much Bradbury as I should. I read many of his short stories when I was young — his “Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” were favorites of mine — and I read “Fahrenheit” one summer years ago when I found it among a pile of books I was sorting for a garage sale. One of his shortest stories, “The Pedestrian,” was included in a sophomore English text from which I once taught.
I have continued to use it with my older students even now because it is just the kind of tale that should set them to thinking about what we are giving up as we settle into lives filled to their brims with technology and gadgets, glowing monitors and instant communication.
I know what Bradbury thought. He once said that, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” In the dystopian worlds he created in “The Pedestrian” and “Fahrenheit,” that is exactly the case. In the first story, a man is arrested by a robotic police force for walking at night. He is a writer, but since no one reads anymore (they all stay inside to watch “viewing screens”), he wanders the city on broken and grassy sidewalks, alone. He is stopped and questioned, then taken to a psychiatric ward for abnormal behavior.
In the latter tale, Bradbury writes of a society where reading and sharing books has become illegal. In that culture, the people watch their walls — reminiscent of our own retina-burning 80-inch televisions and stadium scoreboard “jumbotrons” — eager for the latest pop culture news and the mind-numbing programming they are allowed to watch after it has been sifted through government-controlled censors. In Bradbury’s world, firemen are trained to burn books, and the homes that hold them, and even the people who cherish them. One of those firemen, a man named Montag, comes to see the evil of his actions, comes to love books, then to hoard them, and eventually runs for his life because of them.
If you haven’t read the book, I certainly don’t want to spoil it for you, but if you do grab a copy (First Financial has purchased the books the library is dispensing locally), be prepared to think, to even be a little confused. That is what Bradbury does to us. He makes us wonder if such a time is possible — perhaps, makes us ask if we are, 50 years after he wrote “Fahrenheit,” sliding closer to living in a time where knowledge and the wonder of books are no longer as important to us.
In a book that is as quotable as they come, Bradbury reminds me why I want my students to read, my neighbors, the people I pass on the street, people I will never know, to read…
Faber (supposedly named after the German pencil maker), a retired English professor who harbors and advises Montag (he also has a few precious books stashed away), tries to explain to him why they are important. He says, “They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world; we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”
Despite wearing the lettering off my library card as a kid, I hate to say that I never read Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine.” I’ve had copies of the book calling to me from bookshelves and desktops for years, but I’ve never cracked it until this winter. “You need to read that book,” Joanie has told me more than once. It spoke to her years ago, and she wanted me to hear Bradbury’s voice through it, too.
She gave me a copy late last fall, and once again I kept stacking books on top of it, then those came off to be read first. I began to read “Wine” during our break from school in December, grabbing a chapter here and there as I read other things along the way; I even stopped reading it altogether a few times while I ingested a novel here, a biography there, and spent time with my ever-present schoolwork. I liked it, but didn’t love it, until last week when I picked it up again.
But as much as that book speaks to my wife, and scores of others, “Fahrenheit” whispers in my ear. Another character — his name is Granger — who helps Montag as he runs from the police, says, “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”
That idea must have been on Bradbury’s mind when he wrote “Fahrenheit.” Perhaps it was a self-fulfilled prophesy, for when he was a boy, a carnival act star called “Mr. Electro” once told Bradbury, “You’ll live forever.”
As long as we read his books, that will be true.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be speaking and signing copies of his newest book, “A Place Near Home,” at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Feb. 23 at the Marshall, Ill., Public Library. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for dates when he will be discussing “Fahrenheit 451” for the Wabash Valley’s Big Read.