For Ray Bradbury, censorship was serious business. In Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, book banning was not only a matter of the obliteration of the printed page, but a literal case of life and death.
As Jonathan Eller writes in Becoming Ray Bradbury, the high cost of censorship was set into author’s mind among the shelves of his small town Illinois library.
Each time he entered the building as a young boy in Waukegan, he saw the authors personified in the masterpieces on the library shelves. Eventually, he came to see the shelves as populations of authors and began to dream of living among them, Bradbury between Mr. Gaum and Mr. Burroughs, not far from Miss Dickinson, Mr. Melville, Mr. Poe, Miss Welty, Mr. Whitman, and an ever-expanding circle of reading loves. To burn the book is to burn the author, and to burn the author is to deny our own humanity.
For those who either missed or forgot the near-mandatory high school assignment of Fahrenheit 451, the book’s plot revolves around a “fireman” in America’s not-so-far future. The protagonist, Guy Montag doesn’t extinguish fires, but instead starts them. Montag burns forbidden books and the homes and possessions of those audacious enough to read the books. Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, was once a book lover but became an anti-literature crusader because, basically, the contradictory ideas found in books made his brain hurt.
Those who seek to ban books are often well-meaning. The controversial content, impolite language and dissenting themes found within the pages of titles plucked from library and shop shelves may not reflect the values of a librarian, store owner or parent. For Bradbury, the real danger came in shutting down the voices of writers at the expense of protecting readers.
Early in his career Bradbury was quick to warn librarians against shutting out an author’s voice. Eller recounts a speech that Bradbury gave to the Los Angeles Chapter of Brandies University’s National Women’s Committee. The group was seeking to build a University library. Bradbury had been thinking of expanding his earlier story, “The Fireman,” into the novel that would become Fahrenheit 451. Jonathan Eller quotes Bradbury’s Brandeis speech and shows how the mission statement of the book was fully formed in the author’s mind:
He cautioned these library-builders in a way that showed how much “The Fireman” remained in the forefront of his own mind: “books are dangerous, celebrities detest these handy memory courses which recollect their promises at midnight and their absentmindedness at dawn. They would rather life be lived and forgotten. How lovely, without books, when experience vanishes in thin air, in mouth-to-mouth mythology, and bedtime tales.” But Bradbury went on to define the historical importance of books in a very fundamental way: “First they can help us lay away those dreams which might hurt us, they can tell us that we are not so good as we think we are. . . the second thing books can give us are new and better dreams to replace the old bad ones. . . But the second cannot be done properly without the first. Without a knowledge of our lies, our deceits, our greed, through which runs a narrow vein of thoughtfulness and good, we would go on repeating the same mistakes in the same way.”
In 1967, Fahrenheit 451 was subject to an expurgation by Ballantine Books, who replaced words determined to be problematic for the high school readers the publisher had sought to target with a new edition of the book. The words “hell,” “damn” and “abortion” were taken out along with other descriptions.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Bradbury learned of the changes and demanded the censored version be restored. When the book was censored, his publisher never told him.