My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 2 #45, June 20, 1997


With all the talk about censorship of late, Ray Bradbury's wonderful book, Fahrenheit 451 has been on my mind. For those of you who haven't read it, Bradbury posits a society in which people surround themselves with walls of empty, contentless media which keep them from ever having to think or feel. Any books that are found are burned. But booklovers cannot be discouraged that easily. They keep books alive by each committing one or more books to memory in entirety. So long as they live, no society is powerful enough to destroy the books that live inside them.

It raises an impossible question, doesn't it? If you lived in such a society, which book or books would you choose to become? Our memories being the shallow, limited things they are, we each could only save at best a few. And how would you decide?

I think some of the questions you have to ask yourself are, "Who are you saving the books for?" For the good of the world? For yourself? For your children? And what is it we value in these books? Wisdom? Comfort? Memories? Understanding of where we've been and how we got to this point? Or perhaps a blueprint for building a better society?

And might we be so intent on saving the important that the merely pleasurable books don't make the cut? Would we save Shirley Jackson's short stories, but lose her delightful books about her children, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages? Would anybody save Stephen King or Danielle Steele, or Tom Clancy? Would anybody save murder mysteries or westerns? Would somebody save the useful, practical books that tell us how to do things like develop photographs or computer programs, build treehouses or logical arguments?

And would we be doing this together, or would we each be making our own individual, highly personal choices? Would our choices be different if we knew that somebody else would memorize the books we know are important, the books we know MUST be saved?

Of the books that I feel special gratitude toward, only one of them is an "essential" book, an "important" book that MUST be saved: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a book I struggled with, a book I actively hated the first time I read it, because it was so twisty, so convoluted, so hard to find a story in. I kept muttering to myself "Would you just get to the point, please?" Then I read it again, and began to see what was happening. And when I read it yet again it stunned me with its moral vision.

It is a book that MUST be saved because it tells us what we may become if there is nobody to stop us, if we have absolute power over other human beings. Kurtz, a white colonial ruler among blacks, has such absolute authority, and with no one to question his actions, one small step at a time he commits ever greater brutalities, until there is no sin, no crime, no ugliness he will refrain from. The only possible check is his conscience. And he has none. "The horror" Kurtz has seen is within himself, where he has looked and found nothing at all.

It's amazing to me that Conrad could have understood, in 1902, the century that lay ahead, that gave us both bureaucratic, efficient mass murder at Auschwitz, and vengeful, even gleeful, mass murder in Bosnia. We need this book to remind us that if we stand on the sidelines and say nothing to stop them, bullies can become rapists, torturers, soulless killers, and we will be complicit in their crimes. Conscience is a feeble, fragile thing. It needs all the reinforcement we can give it.

So, before I make a more personal choice, I would need to make sure that this book is saved by somebody. If its survival is guaranteed, then I would make a lesser choice, but one that means a great deal to me--Jane Eyre.

This is a book I would save for myself, because it helped me through my difficult teenage years. From the first moment we meet ten year old Jane, hiding in a window seat from the disgusting little bully who wants to beat her up, we are in her skin. We share her sense of injustice--why is she abused? Why is she not loved? When she grows up and becomes governess in the house of Mr. Rochester, we share their conversations, so full of ideas and wit, and marvel at a relationship founded on his respect for her mind and spirit. The only thing plain and insignificant about Jane is her body.

For many of us who spent our teenage years waiting by a telephone that never rang, this book kept us hopeful, along with Pride and Prejudice, of course. Because we also saw ourselves as Elizabeth, the unnervingly perceptive heroine, who misses nothing about the people around her--she sees and is amused by their weaknesses, their occasional foolishness, and loves them anyway. Darcy, the ideal hero, revels in her wit and intelligence. Again, it is a book that gives us hope there may be such a man for us.

It's fair to assume that there will always be plain, bright awkward girls, always hopeful, always rejected. For them, I would commit these books to memory. In that Fahrenheit 451 universe, I would seek these girls out in the corners they hide in, and say, "Let me tell you a story."

What else might I save? I would have to preserve something for the children, I think. Some children's books, of course, I already know by heart, for instance, Horton Hatches the Egg. "I meant what I said and I said what I meant! An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent!" When we save children's books, we save ideals we want our children to live by. Loyalty and keeping promises are good virtues to start with, and they are in short supply in the world of 451.

But Dr. Seuss also appeals to the word child in me, and the world of Fahrenheit 451 does not value words or teach children their power to enchant. This is why I would also memorize Judith Viorst's delightful collection of verse, If I Were in Charge of the World. The images and rhymes are wonderful.
Chocolate ice cream tastes like prunes
December's come to stay
They've taken back the Mays and Junes
Since Hanna moved away.

Flowers smell like halibut.
Velvet feels like hay.
Every handsome dog's a mutt
Since Hanna moved away
But there's more here than just rhyme and rhythm. Judith Viorst remembers what it feels like to be six years old. Her poems are about children who say NO, and tell each other's secrets, who love their cats and hate their baby brothers, who mourn for dead hamsters, and hate to say they're sorry. Children will listen to these verses and recognize themselves, depicted with gentle amusement and love. These are verses that make children feel normal, and better yet, forgiven. Yes, I would memorize these verses. And when I saw a little boy who knew he really should not have bopped his baby sister, I would put him on my lap and recite them to him.

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