Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Banned Books Week!

"We all know that books burn, yet we have the greater knowledge that books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man's freedom."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
The American Library Association has named September 21-27th Banned Books Week as a way of celebrating the freedom to read. It's remarkable to think that it wasn't so long ago that books were regularly being censored - the famous ones I can think of are The Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterly's Lover, Naked Lunch, and - one of the great formative novels of my youth - Robert Cormier's excellent The Chocolate War. Luckily, through vigilance and additional delivery platforms such as eBooks, censorship appears to be minimized these days, but it's worth remembering how grim the situation was.

In reading about this event, I came across this powerful afterward added to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:
"About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles? A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"? Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.  Two weeks ago my mount of mail delivered forth a pip-squeak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story "The Fog Horn" in a high school reader. In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a "God-Light." Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in "the Presence." The editors had deleted "God-Light" and "in the Presence." ... Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? How did I react to all of the above?
By "firing" the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.
By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches."
h/t Daily Kos

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience


  1. In my opinion, Ray Bradbury comes off as a pompous ass there. A particular published version isn't sacrosanct; any number of authors have meaningfully revised major works of fiction after publication in order to improve them. Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Stephen King are some who come to mind. So a reader sees what they believe is a serious, but perhaps unintentional, flaw, and respectfully points it out to the author. That doesn't mean the reader is trying to "burn" the book. The author is certainly free to disagree with the reader's point of view, to suggest that the writing choices were intentional, even meaningful. But to publicly label the reader as an "idiot" who deserves to be condemned to "the far reaches of hell"?

  2. Heh. That's not how I read Bradbury's article, but I could see how you would think that after re-reading it. It's certainly a departure from his usual congenial image! Although I think it's important to recognize - in my mind at least - he's not condemning one specific individual but the group of people that ask him to change his vision to accommodate their world view. I'm not sure that the authors you mentioned that adapted their works (and the list is extensive, Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is another one that immediately comes to mind) did so in response to reader/publisher criticism so much as they wanted to fix what they themselves perceived as flaws in the work. Which to me is the important thing: there will always be people requesting that artists change their works of art, and that's okay - as long as the artist has the final decision of what gets published.

  3. After all, authors can feel quite passionately about these matters. Check out Kurt Vonnegut's response to a school that burned copies of "Slaughterhouse-Five":

  4. I agree with you, and with Vonnegut: burning books is bad.

    And I agree with one statement that Bradbury makes: there is more than one way to burn a book. But the people he describes didn't rip the covers off his books, or steal his books from the library, or use markers to black out offensive passages. They wrote him letters.

    What -- a celebrated author may express in writing whatever worldview he wants, but if us mere mortals do the same, we are idiots who belong in the far reaches of hell?

    I'd suggest that it's more than a bit conceited for Bradbury to ask people to be open and engage maturely with his ideas, when he refuses them the same respect.