Higher Living Reflections

A Burning Question

In the Introduction to “The Republic of Imagination,” Professor Azar Nafisi relates an anecdote about a young Iranian ex-pat she calls “Ramin” who, at a book promotion event, basically told her she was wasting her time. Americans, he said, are very different than Iranians. He insisted that Americans are from another world and don’t care about books. His words haunted Dr. Nafisi over the years. A decade later, she rebutted Ramin in that Introduction arguing that America still has an imaginative and curious ethos and points to those who haunt bookstores, go to readings, and read in the quiet and privacy of their homes as evidence. But with the zealous crusade to ban book after book not only from schools but now from public libraries intensifying from smoldering to burning, I cannot help but find myself in sympathy with the young man’s point.

In his classic novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury created an eerie but poignant scene in which the Firemen arrive at Mrs. Blake’s house after a neighbor denounced her to the authorities for having books. After dousing her cherished library with kerosene, they order her to leave before they set them ablaze. She refuses. In her hand she holds the instrument that will prevent them from setting them afire. A simple match, which she strikes, doing the deed herself. In so doing, Mrs. Blake throws herself upon the pyre and self-immolates along with her treasure.

Whose act is pernicious and whose is noble? You decide.

Fahrenheit 451 is a chilling tale despite its heated message. Bradbury wrote it eight years after the most notorious of book burners were defeated. But the clime in America then was hardly free and open. It was the McCarthyism era, a shameful period of our past that was also an ominous prescient preview of America in the third decade of the twentieth-first century. We are, despite George Santayana’s warning, in danger of repeating that past because we haven’t learned the lessons from it.

The title of Fahrenheit 451 is derived from the temperature paper reaches when torched. One wonders what the emotional temperature of book banners is. I surmise considerably higher than 98.6.

Is it fair to equate book burning with book banning? Yes. The difference is merely a matter of degrees. While banning does not physically destroy books, it has the same effect as burning. It is censorship, a form of silencing as Professor Nafisi contends.

“Book bans,” she posited in a Washington Post op-ed, “are canaries in coal mines — indicators of the direction in which a society is moving.”  

She, like Ramin, ought to know, having borne debilitating afflictions at the hands of Iran’s theocratic censors and refusing to buckle.

Book banning is more than silencing writers and depriving readers, particularly the young, of the opportunity to learn about and debate the merits of ideas. It is a form of dumbing down. Students subjected to such bans will inherently have comparatively limited proficiencies in multiple areas vis-à-vis their unencumbered peers. Thus, they will be underprepared for the world in which they will soon be engaging as adults. The antithesis of what Shakespeare’s King Henry V averred before the literal Battle of Agincourt: “All things be ready if our minds be so.”

The burning question each citizen must answer is how they will respond to the censoring. One powerful strategy is reading and talking openly about books under assault. I sardonically quip that in a way I should thank the banners for helping me to compile my reading list. Some of the proscribed books I have read, but many, especially newer ones on the scene, I haven’t. Yet. Not all are my normal cup of literary tea, but then my curiosity prompts me to dig into them to see what the fuss is all about. Unsurprisingly, I keep finding that it is, as the Bard once wrote, much ado about nothing.

 “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” Bradbury said. “Just get people to stop reading them.”

Indeed. We are at a crossroad. To paraphrase Hamlet, to read unfetteredly or not to. That is the burning question before us.

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  • mark palko
    May 20, 2022 at 11:10 am

    Wonderful essay. Hegel’s Paradox: “The only thing man learns from history is that he learns nothing from history.”
    It would almost be funny if it weren’t so true.

  • Bruce Most
    May 21, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    Excellent essay, Jerry. Book burning/banning is always the work of petty, insecure minds. While book banning is far from unique to America, you would think that the nation that prides itself as leading the world in freedom would do better than its misdirected banning of books. A nation full of small minds.

  • Robert Williscroft
    May 22, 2022 at 1:59 am

    I have no quarrel with your comments, Jerry, but I want to point out that a ban on book banning should be directed at adult reading. Younger children should not be exposed indiscriminately to every book and every idea. Their young minds need to develop and they need to learn critical thinking–something in short supply in most of today’s public schools and even many private ones.

  • Bonnie McCune
    May 22, 2022 at 10:12 pm

    I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done. Almost no one reads as extensively as people used to. Time is absorbed by social media, poll-taking and takers, gossip, and besting others, not thinking. Sorry