The Banned Book That Changed My Life
The Banned Book That Changed My Life
by Laren Grey
In recognition of Banned Books Week, this is my story of how a banned book changed my life.
I was a curious nine-year-old in 1986 living in a small town in Virginia. I had "read" illustrated books about science and animals but never read a "real" book.
One day in the hallway at school, a teacher approached me. She was not a teacher in any of my classes, but it was a small school and we knew all the teachers. At this time, I was unaware of social controversy or banned books. Like many kids, I was into movies, science, and nature. The teacher stopped me and asked me to come to her classroom at the end of the school day. I had no idea why. All day it worried me that I had done something wrong. After all, school systems are non-democratic and punishments were often handed out like candy for unproven infractions. It's no wonder they ban books.
The final bell rang. I apprehensively entered the teacher's classroom. "Sit down," she said. She opened her desk. "I have something for you," she added. She pulled a paperback book from the desk and handed it to me. I looked at the cover. I knew that Fahrenheit was a unit of measurement for temperature. At the time, I did not know that 451 degrees was the temperature at which paper burns. She told me to read the book. I asked when the book report was due. She said no book report was due. Confusion overtook me. How did this authoritarian figure expect nothing from me? She explained to me that the book was important.
That evening, I began reading the book. I read slowly. I've read slowly my whole life, savoring sentences like delicious food. I often say that I read at the pace of Morgan Freeman on lithium. Each sentence was a mellow pontification that stirred in my brain. I reread paragraphs like echoes bouncing back to me from the future. It took me two weeks to read the relatively short book.
The teacher never uttered another word to me about it. I looked for the same book in the school library and at the nearby public library. I could not find it. I went to a small bookstore in town. It wasn't there either. I would have been able to special order it at the bookstore, I assume, but it wasn't carried on shelves, and I didn't know that ordering books was an option. This book was not available to cross my radar. I think that's the most important point about banned books. It's about who they are banned from. They are banned from kids; growing, learning minds, open minds not "protected" by biases, social norms, or ideological neuroses.
I finished the book, which is a dystopian tale by Ray Bradbury about our future society which practiced the burning of books. In the story, the fireman Captain Beatty explained the rationale to Montag, the protagonist, that society doesn't need books. We only need quick, digestible headlines, he asserted. He declares, "So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute!"
At 48 years old, I now witness the cataclysmic effect of a society that doesn't read and obsesses over headlines. I see Ray Bradbury's warning becoming a reality. I see history repeating itself.
Since reading the book at nine years old, and since reading it again as an adult, listening to the audiobook, and enjoying the 1966 film, I have seen similar authoritarian hypocrisies in all aspects of our society. I think awareness should solve the issue, but authoritarian pushback is dug into our souls like a diseased tick. Our society is sick. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society". Today, books are still kept hidden from the radars of young minds, and we have an adult society that is growingly anti-intellectual, worshipping headline hysteria while ignoring books. Indeed, a sick society.
It is deeply ironic that Fahrenheit 451 was on a banned book list, and has been on and off of various restriction lists across America since its release in 1953. I am grateful to the teacher who gave me such an important book.
For more information about banned books, visit https://bannedbooksweek.org/