Fiction / Humanities for the Unbound Mind / My Bookshelf

When the flame of knowledge meets the flame of censorship…

Originally published June 29, 2014

Burning books is an activity that we, as humans, have engaged in for millennium. For some reason we believe that by burning the book we eradicate the knowledge. Somehow, the knowledge survives, or rises from the ashes like a Phoenix of ancient legend. At least that is my sincerest hope.

I was introduced to the workings of a practice every bit as evil as the actual burning of a book; the effort to censor, to clean up, to make “more acceptable” to polite company and children.

When I was in high school we were given Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as required reading. It was an intriguing book in the late 60s, early 70s and it generated a great deal of class discussion and some rather interesting papers. The most interesting paper, however, was a letter to the author.

At some point the teacher chose to read a passage out loud. We, the students, were opened mouthed. We thought, “Wow, she’s really into this!” Eventually the right questions were asked and the class compared their editions (purchased through the school) with the teacher’s copy (purchased at the local bookstore) and the changes were amazing. The Keepers of Our Young Minds determined that even the word “naval” was too dramatic. Really? So, we composed a letter to the venerated author noting the pure irony that a book warning about censorship was, well, censored. Cut to ribbons, actually.

We received a reply. Mr. Bradbury informed us that the publisher had “laundered” his text without his knowledge and he was working diligently to correct the situation. In the meantime, he had enclosed sticky labels with “damn” and “hell” all over them; one for each student that had signed the letter. I’ve never hesitated to write an author since then.

Many years later, I picked up a copy to browse and found an afterword citing just such an occurrence. I’d like to think it referred to my high school English Literature class.

I bring you an excerpt from CODA by Ray Bradbury

    “Shut the door, they’re coming through the window, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” are the words to an old song. They fit my lifestyle with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six months ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.”

For further information: Villanova University

No, not every written piece is for every person. However, as a race we tend to record the best, the worst, the mediocre.  We live our dreams, our hopes and our worst nightmares within the written word.  Even the basest of works can be used to show a people where NOT to go.  Knowledge is a prize too precious to permit the whims of the present to control or destroy it.

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