“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.”
– Fahrenheit 451
Literature can be dangerous because it disrupts how you think about life. Everyone has a book, at least one book, that has changed them. This one book might have changed how they think, how they act, and who they are. I have many beloved books and poems, but one in particular comes to mind when I think about how it changed me: The Catcher in the Rye.
I recall reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time at 18 (I actually read it quickly when I was 15 for high school, but didn’t take anything in. It was page after page of jumbled, aimless words).
When I read The Catcher in the Rye at 18, I felt Holden was confessing something to me. Particular passages stand out, as if the book is pages of quotables. I thought it was just me who like Catcher in the Rye, until, of course, I found out that the book has a massive fan base.
The Catcher in the Rye is also one of the most famous books to banned, damned, and burned for its ‘explicit’ content (e.g. reference to sex and vulgar language). Like many books that are burned and damned, those who do the condemning often miss the very heart of the book. They skip over all the meaningful words to find a swear word or a suggestive image.
The Catcher in the Rye is about a young man (of the 1950s ‘Lost Generation‘) who was experiencing resurfacing memories of his childhood, all in a sort of traumatic reminiscence. It is about that transition stage we all have to go through: from childhood to adulthood.
It is also a counterculture work, in a sense. It attempts to show New York, with all of its big city institutions and city life, incapable of helping and directing a young man to become an adult. New York is a desert to Holden. A desert he wanders through. Salinger critiques the broken system – the postwar contradiction – that the youth of the time had to face.
Here is a list of banned, burned, and/or censored books in the 20th century:
Pretty fascinating when you consider how reading has changed today. With information so readily available, it is hard not to find some sort of censored material easily online.
However, book burning happened as little as ten years back with Harry Potter. Condemned by certain denominations as ‘unholy’ or inappropriate, the book was burned in an attempt to denounce the use of magic in a children’s book.
All literature informs. This is the problem to people who wish to ban it. It conflicts their idea of what is right and wrong.
In Ray Bradbury‘s excellent novel, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s protagonist, Guy Montag, delights in his job as a fireman who sets fire to any household that has books. Of course, Bradbury was critiquing the culture at the time that sought to silence any dissidence. Bradbury was an author who rose to fame in the 1950s. His sci-fi and supernatural tales gained him an avid and loyal readership. Along with other writers of the time, Bradbury explored other worlds and used them as a reflection of our own. The 1950s and 60s were the eras of the dystopian novel. Perhaps this had something to do with the political and social upheaval at the time. A Cold War, the Red Threat, a budding Vietnam war, civil right’s movements, political insurrection – all such events were ‘out there,’ – on the world that was presented on the televisions to most middle-class homes. Sci-fi and dystopian fiction acted a way for people to conceptualize and contemplate issues in their lives and around the world. There were not just mere entertainment.
Fahrenheit 451 book jackets through the decades: Cover Art
Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 was banned. Why? Because one of the books in the novel that Guy burns is the Bible (and he enjoys it). Bradbury found apathy towards literature to be appalling, since he considered literature a marker of civilization. Literature is part of our human condition. The 50s and 60s also witnessed the most aggressive use of technological warfare. From hydrogen bombs to chemical weapons, these decades did not shy away from experimenting with a new age of weaponry. Post-War America was also a nationalistic time. The desire to regain a national image after World War Two required asserting political dominance during The Cold War, which unearthed past conflicts between America and Russia that had been buried before and during World War Two.
I suppose it is understandable why dystopian fiction was quite popular.
1984, Animal Farm, The Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, The Chrysalides, A Clockwork Orange, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Lord of the Flies, etc
All of these novels present worlds that could be, if the Cold War did not cease. Dystopian fiction, at least a significant fraction of it, is the literature of the “other” culture, the potential culture, or shadow culture. Fiction is a product of our consciousness; our awareness of being human and our part in a greater narrative. Dystopian fiction presents our fears in order to allow us to imagine what could be. Perhaps dystopian fiction is part of the counterculture in this sense, since woven within its fiction is a critique of the real world.
Further, dystopian fiction’s double audience has always included activists, who use fiction as means to get their message across. Book burning is one of the most virulent acts, since it overlooks all the issues surrounding the book in order to simply get rid of it. To think that some of the most popular works today have been banned is to realize that words are not free. Ideas are political and words are the bullets of these politics. Authors who have been banned take comfort in something: their works have meaning. It has irked someone or some group who, instead of communicating to them about it, destroy it.
In a way, book burnings have led to further popularization of the book. Harry Potter, once again, has become so popular because its audience loved the world of magic that J.K. Rowling illustrated through words, but also because some groups despised it and this magic. It is perhaps one of the most ideal examples of how ideas can become revolutionary. If ideas reach enough people, they shift and shape how we think about life, our goals, and what we consider important. Fiction is a mirror of the world.