I was a high school sophomore enamored with the ideals of the Jesus People Movement when Fahrenheit 451 first appeared on a reading list in my literature class. I did not even take a peek at it. Instead, I made a special request and was granted permission to read the Bible. Between the age of 15 and 18, I read only the Bible. Based on personal experience I dare say that most people who say they believe it is the word of God have never read it cover to cover. (That is not a judgment, it is a challenge.) I studied every chapter and verse from Genesis to Revelations, individually and within a study group, three times.
From January 1974 to March 1976, I lived in a truly Christ-like commune as a member of the Shiloh Youth Revival Center house in Salt Lake City. We worked regular jobs, pooled our money, ministered to the poor, fed the homeless and gave as many as we could a place to sleep and bathe; some of us were still attending high school while we worked part-time and served the local community. Every evening after supper we gathered in the living room, sang contemporary gospel songs, read the Bible together, and our pastor would lead a discussion about its application to our modern lives as disciples of Jesus. We had no television or radio and we never went to a movie during the years I lived there. For fun, we went camping in the Wasatch Range.
I left Shiloh because they would not let me marry when and whom I chose. A particular pastor, who had a particular opinion about the man who asked me to marry him, issued an ultimatum: break off the engagement or leave. I chose to leave. Shiloh had not been cult-like until that ultimatum. No one else had been prohibited from marrying and continuing to fellowship as a member of Shiloh. It was utterly unfair and unreasonable.
The marriage was a disaster, as we had no support system and my husband suffered PTSD (he was a Vietnam combat veteran). At the time, the world was ignorant of PTSD, our veterans and other survivors of long periods of traumatic events were stigmatized and ostracized. We did not stand a chance. Marijuana was illegal, he was using it to self medicate, he was arrested, and it all spiraled down from there.
Fast forward, this is all about Fahrenheit 451, how luminous the plot, how succinctly told (I love minimalism), and why today I eagerly count the hours to watch a new movie based on Ray Bradbury’s stunning novel.
First of all, I was recognized as a writer by multiple teachers in middle school and high school, including the teacher who granted permission to me to read only the Bible instead of his reading list–the government’s reading list–the list from the School Board. To this day, I appreciate his respect for my personal faith and choice, knowing that he personally disagreed with the value of my choice. That very same teacher, Mr. Forrest at Murray High School, told me, based on my written reports about what I was reading and creative writing exercises, “you have a gift…never stop writing.” It was not the first time a teacher used these words to encourage me to exercise a natural talent that otherwise would have fallen by the wayside. In reality, it is a gift and a curse. But Ray Bradbury discovered that we must “stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” This is absolutely true for me. When I stop writing, anxiety slowly causes my mind to stagnate and slip into darkness.
Decades after my refusal to read that book, I decided of my own volition that it was high time I find out what all the fuss was about–why is that particular novel on reading lists in schools across the nation? What’s the big deal? And so I opened my mind and heart, and then I opened the book to the first chapter. As my eyes fell upon the first sentence, it quite stole my breath.
It was a pleasure to burn.
Think about that. The first sentence of the first chapter sets the tone and reveals instantly the storyteller’s style. The first sentence is the bait, it must urge the reader on to the next sentence. If this is not the best first sentence ever written, I beg you to tell me a better one.
It was a pleasure to burn.
A curiosity bomb explodes with six little words. Five one-syllable words and one common yet delicious two-syllable word. I bow to Mr. Bradbury! Wow.
Of course I had to read more! I finished the novel voraciously and then I felt stupid and ashamed of myself for refusing to even look at it as a child. And yet, that one adult who had the power to force me to read it declined that approach. Instead, he allowed my own natural curiosity to guide me on what to feed my head. I was not ready for it at age 15. I was myself a recent survivor of trauma–sexual assault, which I kept secret. I was in survival mode, protecting myself from outside influences, turning to faith for healing and serenity.
In 2012 after Ray Bradbury’s death, I finally read the book. Soon after, I watched a movie adaptation. The book was far better than the 1966 movie. I hope the 2018 movie is a much better adaptation, and I hope it will shake people to the core. Too many of us are half-conscious.
“But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up around them. It can’t last.”
― Ray Bradbury,
Here’s the thing: It is not about books.