Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Conspiracy Theory 451

So, it started because I was looking for a book at the library and couldn't find it. I wasn't even sure I wanted to re-read the thing, something that was required reading when I was in school (lo, these many years ago). But, the fact that it wasn't there, wasn't available at the library, was an irony too huge to be missed.

Now, I have lamented the waning book sections at our library for years. I'm pretty sure there are more video shelves and computer space available than there is room for good ol' fashioned books. And they seem to sell off a lot of "important" books and keep a lot of nonsense. But, not to have THIS book? The ultimate irony.

The book, of course, is Fahrenheit 451. This book is about censorship. It is about books and how a future culture will do away with books. In fact, it will be socially unacceptable and even illegal to read books. The fact that I couldn't find it seemed like a conspiracy was taking place.

Now, it is always smart to check on conspiracy theories and, as it turns out, mine was completely fabricated by my own incompetence. I had spelled "fahrenheit" without the first "h" and thereby missed finding it by "that much." My public library is exonerated -- I can get a copy of the book quite easily. So much for irony. The real irony is that a fake conspiracy got me reading.

But, I didn't know that, so I bought the book from a used bookseller and began a frenzied read to find out what I was being kept from reading. What was embedded in this book that my younger self rolled her eyes over and probably didn't notice or understand? I found a few things that were truly intriguing for me and possibly for all those in the homeschool arena.

First, author Ray Bradbury did a masterful job of describing his future/our present-day life. From his 1950's college library, he predicted that everyone would be walking around with ear buds, shutting out the world around them. That TV would be prevalent everywhere (think most restaurants these days) and that their noise, color, violence and reality shows (and interactive reality shows!) would overwhelm any intelligent thought. That the people on TV would be the friends and "family" of those watching, more than people you shared a room, or even a bed with (think social media). He didn't foresee that there would be hand-held versions/smartphones, but the idea was purely there.

And then, it got really interesting. As the Fire Chief (who in this culture burns the books) tries to explain to our hero, Fireman Guy Montag, why the books can't be allowed to be read anymore; he states:
"...let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we?  Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.  Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books so the [cursing] snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But, the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the 3-D sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals." 
This is so obvious in our culture today, I probably don't need to say anything else. You can't criticize the President without being suspected of racism; you can't even think of not baking a cake for gay wedding; and standing up for life might lead to your death. Everyday, somebody is apologizing for something. Some comment that offended somebody. Because there are so many somebodies in this global world we live in. Maybe it was simpler once, when you were offensive in your small hometown, you could at least leave and start over somewhere else. Here and now, give a false or unliked tweet and you you may never have another moment free of regret or reaction. Forevermore, you will be the guy who said whatever it was you said (right or wrong).

Montag questions further as to why the firemen are necessary in this dystopic future -- basically, why did the government get involved? Fire Chief Beatty answers:
"What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it..."  [bolding, mine]
It becomes clear that books make us think. Later it is further clarified that our own reason will help us decide if the book is teaching us something worth knowing or not. And, if not, our reason will help us to sort it out and let it go. In the meantime, the mind can hold on to that which is good in that book, or in another. But, either way, the book lead us to think.

These comments made me think about our present-day schools. Are they turning out "examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators"?  I'm willing to bet that the kids who are turning out that way get additional encouragement at home or from books.

Common Core curriculum is doing its best to remove or change the classic literature choices for schools. Many books that were once considered classics are now frowned upon because they might offend (I'm thinking Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the Bible).

There is one young girl in Montag's town who seems to still think for herself. Clarisse McClellan challenges much of Montag's ideals, shakes him out of his passive, non-thinking life. How did she maintain this culture of thinking?  Beatty tells us:
"...Heredity and environment are funny things.  You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle..." [bolding, mine]
As a homeschooler, I nearly jumped as I read this quote; did you? The world around is is trying to take our children earlier and earlier. Trying to have the most influence. Moms are encouraged to go back to work within weeks of having a baby, and preschool beckons with glittering force. Summer camps and even VBS are offered so that the little time parents do have with their kids is cut even shorter. Why? I love the acknowledgement that "the home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school."

This book made me think. If you haven't read it, or it has been a long while, you might want to read it (again). Encourage your high schoolers to read it too and discuss how it is like/not like our current culture.

Don't have a copy?  Ahem, you can probably find it at your local library.

[This book is definitely upper-level and PG for some old-fashioned cuss words.]

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