We’re all looking at books that we read in the past to make sense of the present. One that is being talked about is Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It’s been so long since I read it that I only remembered the sense of it, and not the details. I just changed that by re-reading it and got so much more out of it this time around, as I looked at it with new eyes.
1st edition cover of Farenheit 451 (courtesy: Wikipedia)
Here’s something that got to me, spoken by Mr. Faber, the retired English Professor:
Mr. Montag, you are looking at a coward. I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the ‘guilty’, but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself. And when finally they set the structure to burn the books, using the firemen, I grunted a few times and subsided, for there were no others grunting or yelling with me, by then. Now, it’s too late.
Or how about this:
It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor family’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisions, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all that you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parades roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all of the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money, or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing that you were headed for the shore.
Those are from the second part of the book, when Montag is starting to awaken from deep sleep. I had forgotten just how profound a book this is, and that even back in 1953, Bradbury was clearly seeing what we could become as we set down the path we’ve been stumbling down. Now, look at where we are, and admit that the destination is most definitely not the splendorous jewel of a future we were promised in all of those movies, novels, and national aspirations. Fear has us returning to our past to see if we can find the answer to wake up from this nightmare.
The question is: What will we do with the knowledge once we find it? How do we change what has been written in stone in our societies, so that we can reach a future that all of us want to be part of?
We’ve all been so worried about the one-named beasts that threaten to smother ourselves: censorship, racism, sexism, inequality, classism, dogmatism, materialism, and on and on and on…that we forget what we accomplish collectively that allows for books like this to appear. Now, it seems like these words to think about, by one man who had knowledge but lacked power, can restore the power of the collective to see a better future than the one we will be facing.
Read a classic book, and see what lesson you can bring to life. Heck, it doesn’t have to be a classic, as long as it speaks to your soul (not your ego). Share it over and over until you’ve breathed life back into it. Stoke one fire that isn’t meant to destroy but to create. It’s what we desperately need now.