Tag Archives: banned books week

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

5 Oct

Fahrenheit 451A friend has said to me more than once that he only reads non-fiction because that way he learns something from every book he reads.

Being a fiction lover, I always disagreed, but did not articulate why I knew for sure that it was an incomplete truth. Ray Bradbury makes the argument for me in Fahrenheit 451.

This story is a tribute to a love of books and learning. You learn something from every book – fiction or non fiction. In non-fiction books, more often than not, the learning is direct and immediate: unlock your creative powers, learn HTML, yoga, language or the cross stitch.

Stories or fiction are not as direct – we need to allow the ideas, philosophies and arguments to soak in, percolate and then amalgamate into an individual’s own perception. And that’s why I love fiction – it opens your eyes to so many new worlds and dimensions and possibilities. And it’s not easy and offered on a plate – you have to work to get something out of it. Fahrenhiet 451 celebrates getting wonderful, freeing ideas from books.

I happened to finish reading Fahrenheit 451 to coincide with the end of Banned Books Week – and what better book to celebrate the movement with! This is also a book on my Guardian Reading Challenge – so two birds, one stone….

Synopsis: Written 50 years ago, the story is set in a future that is eerily familiar – a “pre-echo”, if you will. This is no longer science fiction.

  • The country is at war – a war that is undefinable and unclear. Fighter jets fly overhead all the time, yet the citizens have no idea what the war is about.
  • Books have been banned – all books.
  • People watch reality TV all day, and the characters on TV substitute real family and need for social interaction.
  • No one walks or exercises or does anything for pleasure. People are told what to think and do.
  • There is no discourse – everyone is fed their roles and lines and brainwashed into numbness and stupidity by establishment controlled TV and radio.
  • Learning is prohibited, free thinking and speech banned.

The characters: The protagonist, Montag, is a fireman. In this future, all homes have been made fire-proof, so the fireman’s job is to start fires and burn books and the homes of people who own books.

Montag’s wife Mildred, has accepted all the distractions that society has to offer – she doesn’t feel any need to look further than her family on the three huge TV walls in their home. This doesn’t mean that she is happy. But she is totally oblivious to this fact as well.

Clarisse, Montag’s neighbour is a breath of fresh air – a rebel – she thinks, her family sits together to talk, exchange ideas. A catalyst, she gets Montag thinking. She is a threat to the order of things.

Faber is the old professor whom Montag turns to for help. He seems to speak for the author in some ways – he has knowledge from books and loves them. He has been quiet too long even though he is aware of the emptiness of life. Once Montag starts to question their lives, Faber is invigorated into action, supporting Montag and helping him break free.

Once Montag  meets Faber, he realises that what they are burning is not just paper and ink, but ideas and knowledge that has been passed on from one person to another. A shared breadth of knowledge that is no longer available to anyone.

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches,

says Ray Bradbury in the Afterword of this book. A sentiment that is echoed in the story by Fire Captain Beatty.

Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.

There is always someone who will get offended by what you’ve said or what you think. If we let that affect us or change the way we think, we’d all think alike and act alike – that’s the end of creativity and individualism.

It’s a book that makes you think and maybe rethink… The pace is breathless, yet the book is one to be savoured slowly. Put it down after a chapter or a powerful paragraph and think about it.

Don’t miss the interview with Ray Bradbury at the end of this edition (Ballantine’s 50th year edition). And read the Afterword and Coda (something I almost never do). This is one of those books that I’ll look back at and think, “It changed my life.”

For a lighter look at how easily you can offend people, read Shazia Mirza’s On the offensive.


Updating Enid Blyton: Banned Books Week 2010

29 Sep

The Three GolliwogsEnid Blyton is one of the most translated and most sold authors of all time. But her books have also made many an appearance on lists of challenged and banned books for many years.

I have been reading for a while that Hodder who publish Enid Blyton books like Famous Five, Five Find-Outers, Naughtiest Girl and Secret Seven is giving the Famous Five books a make-over. They want to bring the language out of the 1940s and make the stories timeless! Certain gender sensitive issues are also getting some gentle updates.

According to Telegraph’s “Enid Blyton’s Famous Five

To this end the books have been revised line by line, leaving the plots intact but cutting many of the old-fashioned expressions, such as “golly”, “rather” and “awfully”, and replacing numerous other words: “Mother” and “Daddy” with “Mum” and “Dad”, “bathing” with “swimming”, “jersey” with “jumper” and so on. There are photographs of actors posing as Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog on the covers, rather than the original illustrations by Eileen A Soper, whose line drawings previously also brought the key incidents of the books to life within the pages. (The old editions are still available for more traditionally minded readers.)

Traditionally minded, yes, that’s me.

Taking the nuances of language out of these stories is bound to change the experience of reading them. To place a story in a time period certain language and social markers are needed. Stripping the books of these markers is going to change the story even if the publishers are very careful not to change plot points.

When we were reading Enid Blyton in the 1980s and ’90s it was already completely outdated, both in ideas and language. Add to that, the geographical distance and cultural differences. We didn’t call our parents “Mother” and “Father”. We didn’t mean “swimming” when we said “bathing”  and we didn’t wear “jerseys”. I’m still not sure what “awful swotter” means, but none of this detracted from our enjoyment of these stories. We went ahead and devoured those pages of adventures.

A story can’t, for the most part, be separated from its time. These books were written post WWII and there are echoes of the fears and realities that were prevalent at this time. Enid Blyton might have been racist and not much of a feminist. But she was writing about her time, and her writing reflects the world that she saw around her. I’m not saying that racism and gender inequality is okay, but maybe we should admit that’s the way it was at one point in time.

Famous FiveMaybe the publishers and parents should stop taking the books so seriously and appreciate their ability to entertain kids even when the language is not familiar.

Language was different and it keeps changing – so why not give kids a taste of a world that is different from the one they are used to? Rather than pretend that men and women were always considered equal or that no one was considered less of a human being because of their race or colour, maybe these books should be used to introduce kids to a time when things were different. Go beyond the adventures as it were, and get them thinking and talking.

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Banned Books Week: Sep 25 to Oct 2

25 Sep

CensorshipIn India, censorship is rampant! It takes many forms and makes its appearance at many levels. But in a strange twisted way, we live in a society that is both highly censored and has the most freedom.

There is a pervading sense that, if one is lucky and has the power and money/knows the right people, one can get away with almost anything – sans consequence – corruption, murder, just to mention a few.

But you will also call down the wrath of “morality” and self-appointed guardians of “Indian culture” upon yourself for many other issues that you might think are your business: what you wear, who you talk to, who you marry, what religion you follow, smoking, drinking, partying, holding hands in public (with someone of the opposite sex), celebrating a silly Hallmark day… These are just some of those things that are closely watched. Watch out for swift punishment if you put a toe out of line when the wrong people are watching.

Strangely, but strangely, I have not been able to find too many books that have been banned here. Apart from religious and political, non fiction books, these are the novels that have been banned in India:

God of Small Things – Arundathi Roy (which I have read and quite liked)

Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Lajja – Taslima Nasreen


American classrooms have a lot more drama, with parents objecting to racial, sexual and violent content in books earmarked for study in classrooms. The American Library Association lists all the Banned and/or Challenged Books.

The Banned Books Week aims to celebrate free thought and support books that have been challenged or banned. These novels have been challenged and swept away by censorship at different points in history. Ideas, ideals, prejudices change over time and what was sensitive or shocking or against moral standards at one time, is no longer measured by the same standards. While reading these books, the fun is to imagine living in the period when it was published to understand why it was banned.

The anarchist in me delights in having read some of these books from the Banned list.

Not having found anything to protest about closer to home in this regard, I look across the seas to lend my support to books that are being stifled in the here and now.

Speak by Laurie Halse AndersonOne of them that I’m interested in is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Aimed at Young Adults, this novel tells the story of high school freshman Melinda. Already a social misfit, she becomes a pariah when she calls the police while at a party. This leads to several arrests. But the real reason Melinda calls the cops is because she has been raped by a senior. The story then focuses on how she deals with this trauma.

Protest: Some parents have asked that the book not be included in school curriculum, labeling it soft porn.

Dr. Wesley Scroggins has objected to certain books being allowed as part of school curriculum.

Blogs like Mindful Musings and others are showing their support for the book by organising giveaways of this and other challenged books that include Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler.

I reserve comment until I have had a chance to read it myself, but at this point in time, the allegations seems rather exaggerated. I’m not one to blindly trust the establishment, but I have trouble believing that the school curriculum authorities would have included a book that is soft porn. I have no doubt that the description of the rape is disturbing, but calling it soft porn seems way off base.

I’d like to read the book to judge for myself, but or the time-being, I’d rather throw my support behind freedom of expression!

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