Fahrenheit 451 and The Curse of Dickens
What happens when you read a book and think its meh but you fall in love with a side plot…
A quick note to any new readers- in these series of posts I will be attempting to offer up non-canonical, possibly irrelevant, definitely irreverent, commentary on books. Not with the goal to tear down any author (despite what the title implies about Mr. Dickens) but to expand conversation about books with the simple goal of inviting the reader to share their experience of a book and to lead by example.
I bring you back to my childhood and my mother’s bookcase. My mother was an English teacher in high school and the bookcase in our family living room was at the bottom of the stairs where I would head down after everyone was asleep and find my next book. It was full of books that were not remotely appropriate for a ten year old who read compulsively. I think my mother was only slightly aware of what I was getting into. The list of books I read that might surprise my mother is long (someday we will talk about Clan of the Cave Bear) but for today, I want to talk about Ray Bradbury and, tangentially, Charles Dickens.
My very first Ray Bradbury book was The Halloween Tree, and like a baby dragon from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, I imprinted on Bradbury for his creepy visuals and his compelling danger, and I wanted more. So off to the school library to get Something Wicked this Way Comes and I was not disappointed. I loved its dark twists and who doesn’t love a carnival? I was on a Bradbury-centric winning streak, and, in my pre-Netflix binge-y way of reading, I had to get my hands on anything he wrote, and found myself reading Fahrenheit 451. And my love affair ended. Or at least diminished greatly. I don’t know if it was the hard-to-miss messages about the dangers of book burning and the loss of critical thinking in a society intent on numbing itself, or the fact that the protagonist in the book was so different from the kids in his other books, but I was pretty bored by this book, except for one side plot.Which puts me at odds with the rest of the literary world, which views this book as his best, and teaches it in almost every high school class in the country.
Funny side note, about three years ago a book club I was in re-read this book as our monthly selection and I found it to be as over-written and flat as I had when I was young, though I was still drawn to the same sub-plot: Granger’s “Book People.” If you want to engage in the Honors English class discussion of Fahrenheit 451, I encourage you to go somewhere else. All I want to talk about are the “Book People.”
The “Book People” were the collection of misfits who lived on the outskirts memorizing books so as to rebuild society when this warped reality imploded. (Or exploded. Spoiler alert? If you are reading this, I hope you have already finished the book.) I immediately dropped myself into this group when I read the book, and my first concern was, “How do they decide which book to memorize?” Is it self-select or done by committee?
I had to believe that with Granger in charge it probably wasn’t a democracy. He was all noble and such, but like most intellectuals, I am sure he had a list of “great” books and it wasn’t up for discussion. I imagined he went about telling people what to memorize. What if I got assigned to memorize Dickens?I had read at least three Dickens novels by that point and if someone made me memorize David Copperfield’s first chapter I would do everything in my power to swap with someone else, unless of course they were assigned Life of Samuel Johnson, by Boswell, the verified, most boring book on the planet. I would create entire sub-plots around the “Book People” and how the economy of book assignments would play out.
In this world Books would have to be weighted by the ease of memorization against the interest level of the plot and characters, and popularity of the story. The oral tradition is cutthroat, and if your story isn’t fit for campfire entertainment, you have a lonely stretch of years, stuck reciting your book to your best friend in the late afternoon. And it could impact your romantic prospects. Can you imagine a person who memorized Eudora Welty putting up with the poor sod who was assigned the prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne? I did. And it was fun. Affirming message of the day: No book is a total loss if you can find a sub-plot and enjoy yourself.
So reader, what about you? Did you like Fahrenheit 451? Did you ever imagine yourself as a member of the “Book People”? If so, what book would you want to memorize, or what book would you avoid? Share in the comments. Also, let me know if there is a book you’d like me to write about. I am going to get started memorizing…
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens