As a teenager, I literally stumbled upon François Truffaut‘s powerful interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book Fahrenheit 451. I went to see the movie simply because it featured Julie Christie, the woman who invaded my pubescent dreams as a blonde Russian siren named Lara in David Lean‘s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s epic Doctor Zhivago. On my way home from the movie theatre I stopped at a second hand bookstore and bought a copy of Fahrenheit 451:
“Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires…The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning…along with the houses in which they were hidden.”
Like another dystopic masterpiece, George Orwell’s 1984, Fahrenheit 451 deals with a future society that is devoid of intellectual challenges and lacks any from of empathy, compassion or care. In Bradbury’s dystopian society (the USA, facing a war at home) all books are forbidden and punishment for those found in a possession of a book is severe. Montag, however, starts questioning society rules – he hides some of the books he is supposed to burn and tries to memorise their contents.
Reflecting on his book twenty-odd years after its publication, Bradbury said:
“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….Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever. … Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.”
Bradbury’s opening sentence above – “There is more than one way to burn a book” is a mantra to a host of organisations and individuals who have been fighting what is perceived as attempts to curtail civil liberties and freedom of expression. Images of Nazis burning books in mass rallies have been haunting us for more than sixty years.
Another, extremely popular, way of preventing certain books from being read is to have them removed from public libraries.
The American Library Association (ALA) sets out to be a “leading advocate for [t]he value of libraries and librarians in connecting people to recorded knowledge in all forms, [and] [t]he public’s right to a free and open information society.” In 2006 the ALA council resolved to focus on seven specific Key Action Areas, namely: diversity, equitable access to information and library services, education and lifelong learning, intellectual freedom, advocacy for libraries and the profession, literacy and organizational excellence. These action areas form part of the Association’s current strategic plan, ALAhead to 2010.
Each year, the ALA records hundreds of attempts by individuals and groups to have books removed from library shelves and classrooms, it then publishes a list of banned and/or challenged books for that year. The ALA has also argued that “at least 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been the target of ban attempts.” The ALA listof banned and/or challenged books from the Radcliff 100 is a shocking indictment of modern day intellectual bigotry. It includes literary masterpieces such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Ulysses by James Joyce, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding and1984 by George Orwell — and others.
Index on Censorship
Index on Censorship is a leading British organisation focusing on the promotion of issues related to freedom of expression. It was created in the early 1970’s in order to identify areas where freedom of expression is curtailed or prohibited outright. Recent issues tackled and commented-on (check the website and the blog) include a look at Ireland’s new blasphemy law, reflections on the effect a new Privacy Law may have on the free press, and a challenge of Obama’s reported ‘Cuban Changes’- are they real – or spin? Other discussions revolve around The US Supreme Court rule that broadcasters may be fined over the use of swear words on live TV, and , finally, good news, a bill proposing that people caught downloading music illegally three times should be cut off from the Internet is rejected by French politicians.
A mutual Amnesty International / Observer campaign called irrepressible.info allows users to carry, on their personal blogs and websites, snippets from a variety of censored online publications. The snippets point to irrepressible.info, enabling readers to learn more about Internet-related repression. Visitors are also invited to sign a pledge on Internet freedom.
Clearly, the ALA, Index on Censorship. irrepressible.info and similar bodies (like this one and this one), tend to preach to the converted. People who sought, for example, to ban And Tango Makes Three – a book about penguins (declared reasons– anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group) are hardly likely to be moved by calls for freedom of speech advocated by anticensorship organizations.
Judy Blume, writer and tireless anticensorship fighter had this to say about the evils of censorship: “… it’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”