Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Burn the Books: Why We’re Here

Posted on February 29, 2016 in Perspectives
By Krysteana Scribner

By Martin Conte    

“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…  They show the pores in the face of life.  The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” Fahrenheit 451, 82-83

I am not an early adapter.  I have no smartphone.  My ipod is silver and has a rotating scroller.  my watch has hands.  My books do not have screens.  The first draft of this post is written with a blue ball point pen on a yellow legal pad.  So it’s typical that I turn to the medium of “blogging” about 3 years after the golden age of this already outmoded system of communication.  Would more people read this if I instead sent it sentence by sentence on Snapchat?  Or would I get more attention if I memorized this text and delivered it as a feisty monologue on my Youtube channel?  Perhaps.  But here I am, maintaining MLA format, desperately hungry for the rigor of thought, analysis, and productions that disappeared from my life when I graduated this past May from the University of Southern Maine.  Does that sound right?  I miss it.  The papers.  The stacks of books.  The deadlines (these more than anything else).

Which is why we’re here.  In every English major’s long list of anxieties is the burning questions of relevance.  Why does this matter?  Why is this discipline important?  Who cares?  Many professors have come close to answering this question; even a few students possessing a stronger grasp on reality than I have come to personal conclusions.  But the proper answer lies in the most common phrase spoken in English classes across the country: go to the text.  

Faber, the retired professor in Bradbury’s terrifyingly accurate dystopia who spoke the quote above, is reminding us of one of the fundamental responsibilities of both the text and the reader: to be changed.  To see the shortcomings of one’s self (and one’s society), and be changed as a result of it.  Books, so meticulously detailed in their expositions on characters, allow us to see these personalities as mirrors of our own: their vices, their screw-ups, their ugliness, their fears.  

I recently read a New York Times article, “Actresses on the Stubborn Sexism of Hollywood” which asked the question “can women be unlikable on screen?”  Yet, years before Hollywood existed, Hamlet’s mother betrayed her husband and son, Chaucer’s Wyf of Bath transgressed her gender in favor of personal sexual satisfaction, and Emily Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw disobeyed all expectations for her own, perhaps devious, independent choices.  Literature is as ugly as life is, without the make-up.

In today’s society (for the most part), we don’t burn books.  But Faber warned us about a fate far more dangerous than book burning: “That was the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill” (89).  The problem isn’t burning books, the problem is books molding on the shelves, soaking in puddles in basements, being boxed, going out of print, turning into antique store finds.  

The establishment–a term used here to loosely refer to those powers-that-be who favor mainstreaming thought and creating opaque skeletons of real narrative over exploring diverse opinions and constructing complex themes and allegories–has subverted the power of books by drowning their careful arguments with the blasting war trumpets of reality TV and celebrity gossip.   For Bradley’s hero Montag, this auditory battle is literal; on the city’s subway, “the train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great download of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass.  The people were pounded into submission” (79).  How can one read through all the noise?  Poet Tony Hoagland bemoans during his lectures how silence was not made a constitutional right by our founding fathers.  Where they can find these silences, little pockets of readers gather to quietly speak to the knowledge contained inside these fragile objects, each reader becoming herself “bits and pieces of history and literature and international law” (152).  

Last year, at the height of a painful and terrifyingly groundbreaking clash between the administration at USM and its students and faculty, a professor gave a speech based on the writings of Audre Lorde, a speech designed as a call to action, as a reassurance, as a firm planting of a flag of union into the decaying soil of American culture.  

She quoted a woman speaking from and to a previous generation.  I heard the quote.  My brain processed the information contained in the quote, and I changed.  This is the practical study of English Literature, contained not just in the individual reading and interacting with a text, but in the way which that individual then shares the information in such a way that others will learn, change, and themselves interpret that information.  I am asking you (whoever it is I’m addressing) to share in this study.  Comment (you can email editor@usmfreepress or go to the blog at Please, please, please disagree.  

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