The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution


It’s been a few years since I read Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  Like so many dystopias, it’s seen a resurgence of interest since 45 was elected.  (I can’t help but notice the shared digits.)  Bradbury was a writer of his time.  So much, I suppose, could be said of all of us who write—how can we be anything else?  Still, it’s difficult not to see that his fear was of television decimating reading.  And intelligence.  We’ve got the internet now, so the effect has been magnified a bit.  The tale, despited being dated, is poignant.  The more electronic we become the more of what used to be termed “real life” we miss.  At this reading it was clear that The Book of Eli was largely based on the last pages.

When Montag confesses to his wife that he’s been secreting books away, and she finds him insane for doing so, he takes the book in his hand to a former acquaintance, Faber.  It turns out that the book is the Bible, perhaps the last in existence (see what I mean?).  On the subway ride he tries to memorize the Good Book.  Now, I’ve been on the New York City subway, and I know the delays can be long, but there’s an error of scale here.  The Bible’s a big book.  Still, he gets pieces of it down.  Now, in the 1950s, when Fahrenheit 451 was published, the Bible was known for its liberating qualities rather than its darker side.  Also the atomic end of World War II was clearly still a painful living memory.  The two may not be unrelated.

Given the age of the story, I won’t worry about spoilers.  In case, however, it’s on your list proceed with caution.  The war that’s been building the entire story takes place the night of Montag’s escape.  Along with the intellectuals forced out of the cities, he becomes part of a human library.  Each person is, through a memory recovery technique, capable of recalling the books they’ve read.  Montag becomes, appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes.  Perhaps the least evangelical book in the Bible, along with Job (with which most evangelicals find themselves cheering on Job’s friends), Qohelet has long been one of my favorites.  It’s an honest book.  The same can be said for Bradbury’s novel.  Primarily a short story writer, Bradbury didn’t sustain the narrative to novel length very often.  But when he did he fashioned a book that, particularly now, needs to be read.

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

Casing the Promised Land

In one of the great ironies of the English language “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Sometimes an extra syllable can make all the difference. “Ideas are incombustible,” wrote Ellen Hopkins in the final stanza of “Manifesto.” Unlike inflammable, that which is incombustible can’t be burned away. Most literally expressed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ideas are, however, endangered in a culture that claims to support them while secretly allowing them to be banned. Orwell called it doublespeak, and we all owe it to our heirs to fight it wherever we can. Sometimes the promised land may not be all that it seems. Can the brave truly be this afraid? Some politicians think “Born in the USA” is a complimentary song. Never has there been a better case for emphasizing literacy.

We fear the ideas our children might encounter, making them into the people they are meant to be. I’d like to return to an idea I broached at the beginning of this year’s Banned Book Week—the Bible has been a banned book. According to the antics of various preachers and vigilantes, so have been the Quran and the Book of Mormon. Destroying books or their authors, however, only creates martyrs. Until the world begins to understand that memes are more durable than genes we will fight our futile wars to drive the thoughts away. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how some regimes want to control even our dreams. As if cutting the wings from angels were even possible. How do you physically cut an incorporeal being? Some may need to look “incorporeal” up in a dictionary.

I can’t remember when I started to read for fun, but I do know I haven’t been able to stop since. I have no idea how many books I’ve read, but it certainly comes out to more than the money I’ve ever been able to save. I write this with not an iota of regret. In my humble opinion people are products of the books they read, the songs they hear, the movies they watch. Ideas. Ideas permeate us and we, like sponges, absorb our nutrients from them. Inevitably we come to resemble the concepts we ingest. Ingesting concepts is perhaps the best way to think of Banned Book Week. Inflammable and flammable mean the same thing. Incombustible, however, is something completely different.


Dystopian Dreams

Hunger_gamesOne of the most terrible stories in the Bible is the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Of course, depending on your point of view, this was either a necessary evil or an act of wanton cruelty by a deity with anger issues. Still, it ends with a bunch of dead children. Then, as if that weren’t enough, a horrible reprisal comes at the birth of the child of the main character, with Herod slaughtering the innocents in Israel. And let’s not forget the very source of Kierkegaardian angst, the knife poised above a bound Isaac by his completely believing father. More recent, less literary examples could add poignancy and reduce the distance: Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech—the murder of children is beyond the farthest reaches of perversion into a realm that no longer classifies as human. I think the Bible might agree with me there. So it was with some trepidation that I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, at the urging of my daughter.

Although written for a young adult readership, The Hunger Games is a classic dystopia with a dark future and repressive government mandating the killing of twenty-three children every year, just to make a point. Deftly combining teenage angst with the bleakness that just about any future-based novel seems to hold, Collins spins a sad but engrossing tail. Dystopias have grown in popularity since some of the earlier, Cold War exemplars such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The number of dystopian novels grows every year. I suppose if I were an elected official I might cast a worried eye towards the increasing number of exposés of a society where consumers read so many books of the future gone awry. I know many intelligent, sober people who seriously wonder if we’ve already shifted onto that track. Tomorrow is only an extension of today.

Dystopias are among the most biblical of literary genres. The Bible itself is a bit of a dystopia. Consider the framing of a perfect world ending up with the original apocalyptic tale, the Apocalypse, or Revelation. It only ends well for 144,000. In-between there are pages and pages, chapters and chapters of oppression, violence, and suffering. Paradise gone bad. That’s the essence of the dystopia. Although Collins doesn’t make any overt biblical or religious references in The Hunger Games, the very genre she chose can’t escape the biblical bounds laid out for it. And besides, long before the year both Collins and I were born, the Bible had already set its vision for our society. And that vision, to our everlasting trembling, includes the massacre of innocents.

Ban This

It should be a scarlet letter week. In honor of Banned Book Week, I’ve started to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Somehow I made it through high school and college without having been exposed to Vonnegut. A friend started me reading his works when I was about ready to start my Master’s degree, and I’ve always enjoyed coming back to him. When my daughter asked me why Slaughterhouse-Five had been placed on The List, I honestly couldn’t guess. Banning books, of course, is a scheme chiefly intended to keep children unexposed to ideas that adults find uncomfortable. We can’t go around telling other adults what not to think (although that hasn’t stopped many a religious tradition from trying), so some individuals figure that we can protect our unthinking young by putting in the corner literature that asks awkward questions. More radical conservative elements suggest destroying them. These are the true grapes of wrath.

Ideas can be wonderfully dangerous things. We now face a brave new world of internet access where ideas float lightly on the web and unless we watch our children constantly, we can’t control what they might see. Ideas as traditionally expressed in literature go through a tremendously long and convoluted birth process. We even use the language of conception to describe how they begin in one’s mind. Ideas implant, gestate, and grow. For the writer this might represent weeks, months, or years of writing, erasing, re-writing, and yes, parenting the idea. The written book has to meet the approval of publishers and only after yet another editing process are they pronounced fit to see the light of day as books. Having passed through many hands, many heads, such ideas become part of their culture. If we find them objectionable, well, isn’t that just part of life? Perhaps that is the largest message to be gleaned from the world of books: no one will be pleased with them all. Even the diary of a young girl will raise alarm.

Some of the finest literature to escape human minds has been challenged or banned. Ironically, in the land of the free and the home of the brave fear of books runs at a fever pitch seldom encountered elsewhere. Afraid of mice and men. What has made this country such a wonderful experiment—the embracing of diversity—has somehow morphed into a neighborhood where nobody feels safe if there are objectionable words on the bookshelf. Ironically Ray Bradbury’s critique of banning books, Fahrenheit 451, is itself a banned book. What most proponents of stopping literature probably don’t realize is that according to OCLC, the source for library data, the most banned book of all time is the Bible. To be honest, those who’ve read it know that it has sex and violence and many other adult situations. In the original languages there are even “swears.” Maybe it’s time people just grew up. The best way to accomplish that is to read a book. Hey, it’s a jungle out there.

Quran 451?

One of the saddest books I remember is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Any society that burns books has whip-lashed far beyond Fascism into the enemyhood of humanity. Much of ancient culture has been lost through the natural or premeditated destruction of misunderstood “inflammatory” writings and we are much the poorer for it today.

According to an Associated Press story, the ironically named Rev. Terry Jones of the even more ironically named Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, is agitating for a “burn the Quran” day on September 11. Other than momentary, self-righteous catharsis, nothing is to be gained by burning books. The contradictory impulses here lie thick and deep: a Christian clergyman feels insulted by an extremist attack that killed indiscriminately (Muslims and well as Christians, Jews, and Atheists died in the September 11 attacks), bearing the symbol of peace he wishes to declare his personal war, and the follower of the willing victim of Nazareth wears a gun.

Burning books does not solve any problems. Surely Rev. Jones knows that plenty of copies of the Quran abound throughout the world. His action is calculated as a poignant symbol. Is such a symbol anything more than a base expression of outright hatred? When, apart from medieval Christendom, has Christianity insisted that violence is the way forward? All you need is hate? For although the burning of books may not physically harm anyone, the violence in this hatefully symbolic act is the very antithesis of tolerance and understanding that the religious world so desperately needs. Islam has given much to world culture, and we reap the benefits of Muslim scholars and thinkers each day, without any conscious consideration. Rev. Jones needs to read more than just Fahrenheit 451. He must learn truly to read and, like Montag, weep.

Jones' theological comrades

Writing the Divine

The media has displayed considerable interest of late in the views of well-known writers towards the divine. Given the vast numbers of non-famous people daily consigned to Hell by the righteous, there are more tears shed for Anne Rice than for the thousands who’ve never written a vampire novel. Equally fascinating is a story from CNN yesterday on Ray Bradbury’s views on God. I cut my literary teeth on Ray Bradbury. I don’t even recall how I discovered him in the small town where I grew up. More likely than not I found used copies of his story collections at Goodwill. Already interested in science fiction, his tales of the future or fanciful past and alternate worlds captured my imagination. Living in a town where nothing ever seemed to happen, Bradbury was a doorway into someplace colorful.

According to John Blake and Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, the doyen of the sci-fi short story is an avid believer in something out there. Reluctant to accept any single religion, Bradbury embraces religious concepts as the wisdom of the sages. He believes, according to the article, that we have much to learn from religions. The views suggested in the interview may lack the rigor and sophistication of the professional theologian, but Bradbury’s emphasis on love comes close to the mark for several religions. People build superstructures around their religious founders and insist on orthodoxy and military adherence to human speculation about them. Often in the process, love becomes just another tenet left over, if you have time for it.

For many decades as I pursued formal degrees in religious studies, I was taught to put away childish things. I gave away my Ray Bradbury books and purchased hefty tomes of incomprehensible gibberish that passes for theological erudition. Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 as high school reading. I picked up Bradbury again. His writing lacked the absolute wonder and fascination it held for my twelve-year-old eyes, but it was like greeting an old friend once again. My thinking had been partially shaped by this storyteller, and it is perhaps even possible, in a Bradburian sort of way, that I felt a “spiritual” connection as I read his books as a young boy. Reading his amateur views on religion was a quiet sort of homecoming.

An old friend