NEA Big Read
Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

Ray Bradbury selling newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton, Los Angeles, c. 1938.

The Life and Times of Ray Bradbury

  1. 1920s
    • 1920: Ray Bradbury is born on August 22.
    • 1921: Yevgeny Zamyatin completes his influential science-fiction novel We.
    • 1926: First issue of Amazing Stories comes out. Bradbury will be among its early subscribers.
  2. 1930s
    • Bradbury starts writing his own Buck Rogers stories.
    • 1938: Orson Welles delivers "War of the Worlds" broadcast.
    • Nazis burn books across Germany; newsreel footage appalls teenage Bradbury.
  3. 1940s
    • 1947: Bradbury marries Marguerite McClure and publishes his first book, Dark Carnival.
    • 1947: House Un-American Activities Committee investigates the movie industry.
    • 1949: Orwell's 1984 published.
  4. 1950s
    • Bradbury publishes The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953.
    • 1954: Kurt Vonnegut breaks in with Galaxy magazine.
    • Cold War imperils writers' civil liberties in the U.S. and their lives in the Soviet Union.
  5. 1960s
    • 1962: Bradbury receives an Oscar nomination for animated short Icarus Montgolfier Wright.
    • The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Star Trek hook a new generation on science fiction.
    • 1966: Truffaut's film Fahrenheit 451 opens, starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.
  6. 1970s
    • 1971: Apollo 15 crew names Dandelion Crater for Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.
    • 1977: Bradbury awarded lifetime World Fantasy Award.
    • 1977: Star Wars opens, the last time anyone will think of science fiction as a cult genre.
  7. 1980s
    • Bradbury receives PEN Center USA West Lifetime Achievement Award.
    • William Gibson pioneers science-fiction subgenre cyberpunk.
    • Fifteen more books from Bradbury, including horror collection The Toynbee Convector.
  8. 1990s
    • 1992: Bradbury writes his memoir Green Shadows, White Whale about scripting Moby Dick.
    • Many science-fiction magazines shift to online format.
    • 1999: Bradbury suffers a near-fatal stroke. He polishes his first mystery while still in the hospital.
  9. 2000s
    • More honors: National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the National Medal of Arts, and a Pulitzer Prize—Special Citation.
    • 2003: Bradbury's wife dies.
    • 2005: Sam Weller's biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, appears.
    • 2012: Ray Bradbury dies in Los Angeles on June 5, at age 91.

Literature and Censorship

"The paper burns, but the words fly away." These words about book burning from the martyred rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph appear on one wall of Ray Bradbury's beloved Los Angeles Public Library—itself the survivor of a horrific 1986 fire. They also underscore a truth too often ignored: Censorship almost never works. Banning or burning a book may take it out of circulation temporarily, but it usually makes people even more curious to read the work in question. Under Joseph Stalin and his successors, Russia banned questionable books and killed or imprisoned their authors, yet underground or samizdat editions passed from hand to hand and ultimately helped topple the Soviet system. Adolf Hitler exhorted his followers to burn books by Jewish or "subversive" authors, but the best of those books have outlasted Nazi Germany by a good sixty years. In an added irony, accounts of Nazi book burnings helped inspire Fahrenheit 451, one of the most haunting denunciations of censorship in all literature.

How ironic, too, that Bradbury's own indictment of censorship has itself been repeatedly censored. Fourteen years after Fahrenheit 451's initial release, some educators succeeded in persuading its publisher to release a special edition. This edition modified more than seventy-five passages to eliminate mild curse words, and to "clean up" two incidents in the book. (A minor character, for example, was changed from "drunk" to "sick.") When Bradbury learned of the changes, he demanded that the publishers withdraw the censored version, and they complied. Since 1980, only Bradbury's original text has been available. As a result, some schools have banned the book from course lists. For all these attempts to sanitize or banish it completely, Bradbury remained diligent in his defense of his masterpiece, writing in a coda that appears in some editions of the book:

"Do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book."

Other Frequently Censored Books

The Grapes of Wrath
Consistently ranked among the most often banned books in the American literary canon, John Steinbeck's 1937 novel has faced countless challenges from library systems and school districts. Among the most common complaints are its depictions of rural people as, to quote one petition, "low, ignorant, profane, and blasphemous."

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Committee on Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association has listed Harper Lee's 1960 book as one of the ten most commonly challenged. Many school districts have banned it for its racial slurs and the occasional mild swear word.

A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway's third novel (1929) was a popular and critical success, though authorities in America and abroad disagreed. The book initially appeared as a five-part series in Scribner's Magazine, which Boston city officials banned as obscene. In Italy, it was deemed unpatriotic for its unflattering, and accurate, account of the Italian Army's retreat from Caporetto.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts proscribed Mark Twain's enduring masterpiece as "trash suitable only for the slums" when it first came out in 1885. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanded its removal from New York City high schools in 1957 for a new reason: alleged racist content.

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