Friday, September 20, 2013

Beloved Books on Banning: Fahrenheit 451

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"There is more than one way to burn a book." - Ray Bradbury

I was originally debating whether or not to review my experience in rereading the story behind Ray Bradbury's iconic work, or to discuss a tome with more modern concerns.  As it were, since I forgot that I had signed up for Friday, not Saturday, I am going to write my unorganized thoughts on the book, as well as my experience in rereading it as an adult.

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"It was a pleasure to burn."

Fahrenheit 451 was THE book on how pervasive censorship could become, while finding new employment for firemen in the future. With houses that wouldn't burn down, even in the event of wildfires, what are you going to do with those athletic public service agent? Pay them to enforce the law. Make sure the kids aren't thinking for themselves. 

This Bradbury yarn enthralled me as a kid, not the least because it featured a world where the written word was forbidden. Fahrenheit 451 also features a grown adult stuck in a loveless marriage, changing for the better because he meets a young girl. Clarisse has ideas about responsibility, living in the moment, and trying a new thing once or even twice. The young, idealistic me immediately sided with Clarisse and her whimsical games, opening her mouth to catch raindrops and rubbing flowers under her chin. And like Montag, her disappearance surprised and shocked me out of the established world this novel had set.

The power of words also stayed with me. When Montag saves a book from an old woman's scorched library, he reads out the poem "Dover Beach" to his wife's friends on a whim. They're just as shallow as she is, and yet the words touch them. Having never had such an experience with poetry, the idea was foreign until I read some of Bradbury's verses and recited them for a middle school contest. The fact that words have so much power when assembled together made their mark on me, and I can only strive to do the same with my own craftsmanship.

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As an adult, the power that oppression gives to a law enforcer also has a delicious thrill that the hero Guy Montag feels. The first line admits to that pleasure, to seeing organized destruction in the air. The human race bans books for a reason, after all; books provide the gateway to learning more about the world, about its harsh realities and potential for strong communication. We see how a man like Commander Beatty revels in his job as head fireman, why he laughs about the history of how books entered the incinerator.

Is the book still relevant, regarding books, censorship and book burning? Heck yes! We live in a world where Pakistan tried to execute a girl for burning the Koran, where school libraries fire employees for bringing book challenges to the press, and where several states in the United States want to erase evolution from the science curriculum. Humans desire to destroy access to powerful words, to crush others seeking to rise with knowledge and opportunity. Selfish individuals and fearful souls wish for happiness and will sacrifice the questioning mind to do so. That is a fact, that we intellectuals have this ongoing battle with censors, with the books that offend us -- A Song of Ice and Fire for me-- and with ourselves, understanding why reading is a liberty that we should allow for our fellow men.

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There is only one thing we can do to persist in this battle: draw attention to the fire departments. Use the words they seek to burn to rebuild new pages and minds.

Note: first person to comment here receives one of my original comics, seen here, as well a a free watercolor of their choice. That is the giveaway for Banned Books Week!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Secrets and Storytelling

Thanks to StoryDam for suggesting this prompt!
I was a lousy secret-keeper as a child. One, because public television taught me that lying was bad and that keeping secrets often made people feel hurt. Two because I was a terrible liar. So unfortunately, I have no memory of what my first secret was, the one that I was actually able to keep into my adulthood.

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That said, while I couldn't keep secrets, others were good at keeping secrets from ME. For example, when my dad was sick from cancer, no one mentioned the C-word in my presence. They merely told me that he had stomach pains, and he said that he would get better in September. 

In August of that year, my dad died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I only learned later that he had received cancer, and that my family had not disclosed that information to protect ten-year old me. No one could have anticipated the anger I felt that year in addition to grief, at the feeling of having been deceived.
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A word to parents out there: don't be afraid to talk about cancer with your little ones if they're old enough to understand. Ten-year olds are old enough, and they'd rather know when to say goodbye than to have their dads drop dead suddenly. 

I only learned to keep secrets in college, which I attended eight years after my dad died. They're rather like holding in little buzzing stones that vibrate when you hide them. But they can stay unsaid, buried for long periods of time. 

How can a writer use secrets, especially if a writer has had experience of being a bad liar? Quite simply, to build and destroy relationships between characters. When I think of the year my dad died, I think of a book we read called The GiverThe Giver features a world where people don't lie, everyone has their place, and war has ended. At least, people don't lie in theory; the protagonist Jonas receives permission to lie when he is apprenticed to the titular character. 

Secrets destroy Jonas's relationship with his friends and family, though not for lack of trying. He has to remember events from the past that his best friends cannot comprehend, such as war and colors, and explain why they become meaningful in a gray world with dull-colored grass. He cannot convince his little sister that elephants were larger creatures than her stuffed toy, or ask his parents if they love him. His training isolates him, as he has to keep these secrets from people who cannot understand. Jonas finally gives up when he finds out what his father as a caregiver does to unfortunate babies.

Jonas has learned to feel anger and grief in a world without true feelings, and Lois Lowry only reveals his father's and the society's secret when Jonas can weep, rage, and condemn. He soon has to keep secrets of his own to change society for the better, and to rescue his baby brother. Although he grows as a person, his decision to change means sacrificing his old life and hurting everyone around him.

Honesty is dangerous in real life. When we tell the truth, others take advantage of us, or mock us into keeping our desires secret. In books, however, honesty and secrets have the potential to battle out and build a stronger character, one who will make sacrifices and know when to lie or withhold information. That is how we can use sealed lips when crafting stories.