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Constance Alexander: Fahrenheit 451 sparks programs about literacy, public libraries, free speech

For a man who wrote stories that make spines tingle and raise hairs on the back of the neck, author Ray Bradbury was a just a regular guy. Sure, he had a fabulous imagination and earned worldwide renown, but his beginnings were humble, his tastes simple, his education unique.

“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library,” he said, “and it’s better than college. You can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years,” he went on, “I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

Since those early years, Bradbury went on to write hundreds of books, stories, poems, and screenplays that are enjoyed the world over. His words have been translated into more than forty languages. Besides enormous popular appeal, his writings include classics, including the screenplay for the film “Moby Dick,” and the novel “Fahrenheit 451.”

Some claim that “Fahrenheit 451” is about censorship and the future, but in his introduction to the most recent edition of the novel, writer Neil Gaiman said, “This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we have for granted.”

Through a Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Paducah’s Luther F. Carson Center is inviting the public to read “Fahrenheit 451” and make up their own minds. To kick off the months-long literary extravaganza, the Carson Center invited writer Sam Weller to talk to a local audience about Bradbury’s life and work, and to explain his role as Bradbury’s biographer.

In true Bradbury fashion, Weller claimed that his connection to Bradbury began in vitro. When Weller was still in the womb, his father read Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man” to his mother. When he read the book on his own at 11, he recognized Bradbury’s genius, and described the novel as “frightening, dystopian, and gripping.”

“I fell in love with the ideas,” Weller said. “I devoured them.”

Readers in Paducah and the region have many opportunities to “devour” Bradbury’s ideas, through an array of activities that began on December 30, extending through January and February. The culminating event, a staged reading of “Fahrenheit 451” on the main stage of the Carson Center, is scheduled for March 29 and 30,

Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper ignites, and the novel examines a post-apocalyptic world in which an elite class burns books and fine art that no longer have meaning. The main character, Guy Montag, is one of the “Firemen,” a civil servant who is just doing his job. Masterworks are torched, to the joy of massed crowds who cheer for destruction. Montag’s acceptance of his job begins to change, however, when he encounters 16-yer-old Clarisse.

He begins to recognize the terror of ritualized burnings. Bradbury describes the horrifying spectacle like this:

“The book turned and fought, like some small white animal caught within the fire. It seemed to want very much to live, it writhed and sparkled…Leaf by leaf it burned in upon itself, as if hands of fire were turning each page, scanning and burning with the same fire. The pages cringed into black curls and the curls departed on puffs of illumination.”

Fahrenheit 451 was written in the early 1950s, a tumultuous era in which Senator Joe McCarthy set politics aflame with accusations against people exercising their First Amendment rights. Bradbury depicts a grim future in which those trying to save knowledge were considered the enemy, while those in power burned books because they were “false, useless, and only made people unhappy.”

Because of the shift in societal values, “it was eccentric to think, psychotic to enjoy the beauties of nature. Normal people doped themselves with synthetic entertainment,” according to a NY Times review of “Fahrenheit 451” by Orville Prescott.

The critic also recognized an alarming resemblance between Bradbury’s “future” and the present. “His basic message is a plea for direct, personal experience rather than perpetual, synthetic entertainment; for individual thought, action and responsibility; for the great tradition of independent thinking and artistic achievement symbolized in books.”

The temperature at which paper burns is 451 Fahrenheit, and the novel lights a path into a world eerily like our own. The plot is part terror and part hope, with characters pursued by a mechanical hound with poisoned fangs, firemen who torch books instead of saving them, and a city afloat on the ashes of denial.

For more information about The Big Read, log on to thecarsoncenter.org. WKMS-FM invites readers to join a book discussion of the novel at 5:30 pm, January 28, at the station, on the 8th floor of Murray State University’s Fine Arts building. For more information about that free event, contact Asia Burnett at aburnett@murraystate.edu.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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