Ignoring Books–Another Way to Burn Them

fahrenheitRead, reflect, act. 

That is my vision for how we should respond to literature.  Therefore I was pleased to see a version of this advice appearing in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  I’m reading Bradbury’s dystopia because I will be leading a discussion of it tom0rrow as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read Program.

In the novel fireman Guy Montag, a man responsible for burning any books that have escaped a universal ban, is finding his life agonizingly empty and has sought out an old English professor to learn how books can save him.  The professor talks about three steps.

First, one must put oneself in contact with books.  As the professor says,

Do you know why books such as this [Montag has brought him a copy of the Bible] are so important?  Because they have quality.  And what does the word quality mean?  To me it means texture. The book has pores.  It has features.  This book can go under the microscope.  You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.  The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more “literary” you are.  That’s my definition, anyway.  Telling detail.  Fresh detail.  The good writers touch life often.  The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her.  The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Next, the professor says, we must digest the book, for which we need leisure time—by which he means time to think, not time to pursue distractions.  Unfortunately people seek out other ways to fill their off hours.  As he notes, “If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor.”

(We may not yet be allowed to drive a hundred miles an hour but we now have full-wall televisors–which, as one of Bradbury’s characters points out, makes it hardly necessary to officially ban books.  Fahrenheit 451, incidentally, was written in 1953 during the early days of television.)

Finally, we must “carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”

It should be evident from this website how important I consider the final step.  By all means, we should read and reflect, but if we then fail to act on what we’ve learned, we’ve wasted a precious opportunity.  Literature is written to have an impact on the world.

I see that Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, makes this point in a recent column.  After talking about how such people as Barack Obama and Steve Jobs started off at small liberal arts colleges, he writes,

“We need to make sure that the liberal arts prepare people for a good life, not just the good life.”

Meacham talks pragmatically.  Training in the liberal arts, he says,

may help us in our search for new innovation and new competitiveness.  The next chapter of the nation’s economic life could well be written not only by engineers but by entrepreneurs who as products of an apparently disparate education, have formed a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected.  As Alan Brinkley, the historian and former provost of Columbia, has argued in our pages, liberal education is a crucial element in the creation of wealth, jobs, and one hopes, a fairer and more just nation.

Meacham is speaking as one who attended a small liberals arts college, the University of the South at Sewanee (he had my father as a teacher there). But Meacham is careful not to say that such learning can only happen at places like Sewanee.  It should also be available at large state universities and via on-line learning.  Whatever the setting, it’s vital that people get access to it.

Meacham acknowledges that it is “hard to monetize a familiarity with Homer or an intimacy with Shakespeare” but adds that “cutting the liberal arts is a false economy.”  He concludes, “if the country is to prosper—economically, culturally, morally—we have to trust in the institutions, old and new, that nurture creativity, and then hope for the best.”

I appreciate Meacham’s trust and will strive to be worthy of it.

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