“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot recently. I can’t put my finger on the exact moment it started. But it’s been there through conversations with writers over whether or not shorter chapters sell more books because readers don’t have long attention spans. It’s been there through conversations over people “liking” things on Facebook that have been disproven years ago but nobody bothers to go read snopes.com or truthorfiction.com to get the facts. It’s been there through reading the news reports about libraries refusing to put Fifty Shades of Gray on the shelves. It’s been there through political arguments about government invasions of privacy when people say “Well, if you aren’t doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about.” It’s been there through a recent article about Homeland Security’s little list of buzzwords they are searching for and wondering whether or not my recent research into nuclear weapons and firearms for a book has put me on some weird blacklist.
Censorship takes a lot of forms. Many of them are not obvious. Sure, we can all readily point and scream when the government interjects itself into a situation. But the most obvious forms of censorship are the least dangerous. It’s the covert censorship that nobody notices that kills us. It’s the person who steals a controversial book from the library shelves, knowing the library can’t afford to replace it. It’s the person who rips the cover off of a magazine because he or she finds it offensive. It’s the person who goes through a library book and blacks out all of the offensive words. It’s the person who republishes a public domain work in a “politically correct” way with all of the offensive stuff removed and the school that uses that version to teach the book to a new generation of students that has been raised to believe they have the right to never risk being potentially offended.
So I made a decision to do some small part to extinguish a few of those matches. On June 1st, I rolled out a fundraiser for the Freedom to Read Foundation. It’s a simple thing. If we raise $2,500, we’ll release our Neiyar: The Demon Plague campaign setting publishing license fee and royalty free. Why the Freedom to Read Foundation? Because I believe it is important to read things that make us uncomfortable. I believe it is important to read things that make us question our beliefs. I believe it is important to read things in which we might not agree with the author. I believe it is important to protect the rights of other people to read things I don’t myself like. I believe these things because of Ray Bradbury.
When I was a young girl, I had found a mildewed treasure trove of books in the basement of a house a relative was renovating. We didn’t have a lot of books at home. We didn’t have a lot of money then and books were a luxury. There were these piles of books, most of them damaged from mold and water, all over the basement. They were all going to be thrown away. It was like stumbling upon a dragon’s hoard and being told it was just going to be melted down and used for scrap metal. I remember salvaging as many books as I could carry, some of which fell apart on me later when I tried to read them. But I saved a copy of Frank Yerby’s Goat Song and Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian and a battered copy of Plutarch’s Lives that was missing half the front cover and a dog-eared paperback of Dante’s Inferno that included red pen underlines where the last reader had noted important points and dozens of other books that never would have found there way into the hands of a young girl otherwise. None of them were in the school library, that was for sure.
And also among the pile of salvage was a copy of Fahrenheit 451. It was the 1979 version with Bradbury’s coda that included the quote above. It was the first book from the pile I read. I was too young to understand the nuance of it all then. But over the years I reread it and improved upon my understanding. Until finally I understood that the book wasn’t really about censorship from without, but censorship from within. We censor ourselves by limiting what we read to that which makes us happy or keeps us entertained or matches our own belief system. And the more we restrict ourselves to our comfort zones, the more we censor ourselves and our ability to see the world outside of our comfort zone.
I don’t normally get emotional when I read about a celebrity death. Such things usually don’t generate more than an “Oh, what a shame” thought from me and then I move on. But when I heard of Bradbury’s death on June 5th, my heart sank. Bradbury kicked me out of my comfort zone of children’s books and PTA-approved reading lists and age-appropriate Bookmobile offerings. I don’t think at my age then I would have voluntarily tackled The Inferno or those other books otherwise. I would have read the first few lines, considered it too hard, and went to something else. But there was no going back after Fahrenheit 451. I owe him a debt for that. And when I heard he died, a felt like I should have at least told him “thank you” at some point. I didn’t know him personally. It wasn’t like I could call his house or something. I never met him in person to have the opportunity to say it. But he’s gone. And I never said it. And I feel like I should have.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for giving a poor little girl in New Jersey the freedom to be offended and to have her beliefs challenged and to witness how beautiful an uncomfortable world can be.
If you would like to support the Freedom to Read Foundation, please visit my donor portal to make a donation.