This week saw the passing of a literary great when Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury passed away Tuesday at the age of 91. Though he made his name writing tales of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, it was the underlying political messages that gave Bradbury’s novels such weight.
Though the subject of book burning has been broached in popular works of literature for centuries — including Miguel de Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha — no other book is as synonymous with the practice as Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and not too long after the fall of Nazi Germany, which had engaged in a book-burning campaign to “cleanse the un-German spirit” from the country.
Though the notion of book burning sounds ridiculous to any right-thinking person, it still goes on today, even in this country. About a decade ago, when the Harry Potter craze was turning American youth to the wonders of book reading, there were those who saw it as a bad thing, claiming that author J.K. Rowling was promoting witchcraft to children. However, several people involved admitted to not having read the book that so incensed them. And so lies the heart of the matter — ignorance. A Forbes.com article on the situation went on to offer Bradbury’s views on the matter: “There’s nothing wrong with the Potter books, because they’re not promoting witchcraft. They’re promoting being wise.”
More recently — and locally — was the 2010 non-incident involving Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, who threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an on Sept. 11. News of his plans spread quickly, and he was rightfully denounced by members of all faiths before changing his plans. However, the very real burning of four copies of the Qur’an by U.S. troops in Afghanistan this past February resulted in violent protests that caused dozens of deaths and many more injuries. Despite the military’s insistence that the burnings were accidental, what the Afghanis perceived as the symbolic destruction of their religion led to the real death of human beings.
All of these examples illustrate the power of the written word. What’s more important is what’s at the root of that power. It’s not the books themselves but the ideas contained on those pages that gives them weight. And that’s why book-burners will never win: You can’t kill an idea. Of course, the more likely threat to the future of books is the growing popularity of digital publishing. The way things may end up, the title Fahrenheit 451 might have to be changed to the temperature at which an iPad burns.
All humor aside, the literary world lost a very important voice this week, and we can only hope that future generation of writers will continue to learn from Bradbury’s example. Though some people still don’t get it, Bradbury taught us a very important lesson: The pen is mightier than the torch.