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Don’t Join the Book Burners: On Bradbury, Eisenhower, Mitt and the Mind

Few film scenes have had as deep an impact on my life as the final scene among the “Book People” in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. The film was based on Ray Bradbury’s novel, which had been published in 1953, the year I was born. I saw the film in the fall of 1966, when I was 13, not long after I’d read the novel on the advice of a friend. I’ve been with the Book People ever since. The great independent book store here in Austin is even called “Book People.” I call it Home.

In Truffaut’s final, beautifully haunting scene, the Book People walk peacefully through a wooded landscape reciting the books they’ve memorized, the books they’ve become in order hide them from the book burners. The scene confirmed what I’d already come to suspect despite my young age: reading can be a profound form of political and cultural resistance.

Reading is a kind of mind-to-mind telepathy that opens hearts to the experiences of others, an empathy enhancing and soul-bonding technology that does and should make tyrants tremble. In fact, we might know all tyrants first by their trembling before the library doors.

It is, of course, Bradbury’s death last week that brought me back to his novel and Truffaut’s film. (I’m not the only one; this 1953 novel is today number 57 on Amazon’s best seller list.) In a 1993 forward to the book, Bradbury notes that it was published during the McCarthy Era, mentioning that then-President Eisenhower had that year stood up to McCarthy’s banning of books in American overseas libraries.

At his commencement address at Dartmouth in June of ’53, Eisenhower, in a section of remarks devoted to the subject of courage (at 29:20 in the video), said:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.

Telling students to approach the world with broad smiles instead of long faces (in other words, “Don’t look like McCarthy”), Eisenhower rebuked those who believed censorship was key to resisting communism, the bug-a-boo of the time:

We’ve got to fight it with something better, and not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them in places where they are accessible to others, is unquestioned, or is not American.

In Truffaut’s film there is another scene that speaks smilingly to current events. To amplify the film’s authoritarian theme, two cops assault a man with longish hair on the street and proceed to cut the offending locks with scissors. Newscasters praise their vigilant efforts at enforced conformity. [cont’d.]

Mitt Romney, we now know, actually performed that scene as a student at Cranbrook in 1965, the year before the film was released. Confronted with the revelations of his conformist hooliganism, Romney laughed it off. In other words, Romney is precisely the sort of person Eisenhower urged Americans not to become. And a good many support him in his gutless un-Americanism.

I don’t know why I was lucky enough to become obsessed with books and reading at an early age. My parents were readers. I grew up in a smallish house with four siblings and books were a handy escape from the noise. I attended a public high school legendary for its focus on reading and writing.

But even in an enlightened school I was tucking a paperback inside the textbook we were supposed to be studying in class. Because of its time demands, formal education can be as much about excluding what we read as exposure to what teachers demand we read. Luckily, as the years went by, the gap closed between what I wanted to read and what the more experienced readers and teachers in high school and college wanted me to read.

America is not the anti-intellectual horrorshow some think it is, as Carlin Romano reminds us in his new book, America the Philosophical. Nonetheless, someone who picks up a book instead of watching football is a little suspect, if tolerated. Interestingly, the book-burning captain in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit speaks to the distracting happiness and conformity-producing power of sports, TV, and other mass diversions. Books, he notes, promote independent thought that disturbs the peace.

The threat of thought-control is obviously even greater today than it was when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. Firefighters are not yet the professional class of book burners Bradbury imagined. There’s the global authoritarian panic over the internet and the Powers’ stubborn efforts to subdue it. And, our propaganda-filled virtual world of cable news and intrusive advertising is full of a kind of fire that burns free thought to a cinder. Oh, and books are still banned.

The book-burning tyrants are still with us, trembling before the library doors, certain that their undoing lurks among the stacks. It does, praise Gutenberg.

With a loving wave to Ray Bradbury, who managed to tell us dark truths through an eternally smiling mind, here’s the American Library Associations 2012 list of the Top 10 banned books. Do what Eisenhower said. Read all of them.

• ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle (offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group)
• The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa (nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group)
• The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins (anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence)
• My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler (nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group)
• The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group)
• Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint)
• Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit)
• What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones ( nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit)
• Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar (drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit)
• To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (offensive language; racism)

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith

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