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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Imagine a World Without Books

This is the second year I've been invited to deliver the opening remarks for The Big Read, the annual celebration of books and reading sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and engineered locally by the hardworking folks at WriteOutLoud, Veronica Murphy and Walter Ritter. Following is my kickoff speech for their series of events inspired by Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.

Good evening. My name is Charles Harrington Elster.

I’m here tonight to introduce this program because for my entire life I’ve been a lover of libraries and an avid reader, and for my entire professional life as a writer, editor, and radio commentator I’ve been a passionate advocate of libraries and reading.

That’s why I applaud the mission of The Big Read and WriteOutLoud “to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment,” and why I’m delighted to introduce their month-long program of public events celebrating Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

A dystopia, says one current dictionary, is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” When we think of a dystopia, we think of a world in which the individual is manipulated by the state. We think of the fearful, dehumanized societies depicted in such classics as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We think of a world in which some essential ingredient of our humanity—something that makes us rational, compassionate, creative beings and not merely creatures motivated by hunger and fear—has been stripped from us.

Fahrenheit 451 imagines a world in which the hunger of the mind is suppressed by mindless entertainment. It imagines a world of alienation, hedonistic self-absorption, and desperate conformity. It imagines a world of aesthetic and intellectual emptiness, one bereft of anything beautiful or meaningful. (Remember when Faber, the fugitive professor, tells Montag: “I don’t talk things, sir. I talk the meaning of things”?)

Fahrenheit 451 imagines a world in which sharing ideas is verboten and deep, earnest thinking is ridiculed. It is a world from which any spark of what Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, called “the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea” has been extinguished. It is a world in which the greatest vessel for sharing ideas, for containing deep, earnest thinking, and for expressing the intrepid effort of the soul has been outlawed and systematically destroyed. It is, in short, a world without books.

(Incidentally, Bradbury would probably have appreciated that reference to Melville’s great American novel. Bradbury was a big fan of Melville and in 1953 wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s film adaptation of Moby-Dick.)

The word dystopia came into the language about 1950, the same year Bradbury conceived of an anti-intellectual, book-burning future. Driven from his office in the garage by his “loving children,” who continually tempted him to play with them rather than finish what he was writing, Bradbury discovered the typing room in the basement of the UCLA library.

“There, in neat rows,” he says, “were a score or more of old Remington or Underwood typewriters which rented out at a dime a half hour.” For “roughly nine days” the clock ticked madly and Bradbury typed wildly, composing the first draft of a story called “The Fire Man,” which a couple of years later became the novel Fahrenheit 451. It was his dime novel, he later joked, because it had cost him “nine dollars and eighty cents in dimes.”

When he wasn’t typing against the clock in the basement, Bradbury wandered upstairs to explore the UCLA library. “There,” he writes in an afterword to the novel, “I strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries. What a place, don’t you agree, to write a novel about burning books in the Future!”

As it turned out, a library was the perfect place to write Fahrenheit 451. What safer, saner place for a writer to imagine a world in which books are dangerous objects that must be destroyed than a place where books are collected, safeguarded, and revered?

Bradbury’s novel, composed in the early days of the Cold War and during the ascent to power of the anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is a passionate meditation on anti-intellectualism, censorship, propaganda, and the myriad ways in which the state can control society by crushing the individual. It is also a paean to books and literature and the intrepid effort of countless individuals to create and preserve a common heritage.

“We are all bits and pieces of history and literature,” says Granger, the leader of the outlaw band of booklovers that Montag stumbles on in the woods. In other words, like that outlaw band, we all carry with us portions of the books we have read—and though we may not be able to quote their actual words we have at least been exposed to and absorbed many of their ideas. But the tricky part is not simply to read the books but to learn from and act on them. As Granger tells Montag, “Even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them.” Yet, he says hopefully, it’s books that “just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes.”

In no small part because of Fahrenheit 451—a book that dared to imagine the end of books, that dared even to imagine the end of remembering—we still have books and libraries and a culture teeming with individual expression. And most of us still believe that art, literature, and the life of the mind are vital to a healthy and free society. What still threatens us today—along with a host of other ills, from global warming to random gun violence—is the apathy and complacency that so easily creep in when we let our intellectual guard down. We cannot take books or the freedom they represent for granted, Bradbury warns us. And we must never forget that books and libraries are not only vehicles for preserving our culture but also vessels for preserving our humanity.

Tonight—while we still have a shred of humanity left—we celebrate the work of some extraordinary young people who have read Fahrenheit 451 and been inspired to reinvent and reimagine its characters, themes, and book-devouring dystopia in their own original and creative ways.

It’s an award-winning medley, potpourri, salmagundi, gallimaufry, and olla-podrida of literary, visual, musical, and performance art interpretations. Congratulations to all of you talented young people. And thank you, WriteOutLoud, for working so hard to inspire our communty to read.

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(c) 2013 by Charles Harrington Elster
All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.
For permission to reprint or perform, contact Mr. Elster by clicking on
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