Tomorrow I’ll start teaching my first novel unit of the semester, Fahrenheit 451. After my students take their Unit 1 Test, we’ll look together at the introduction and first eight pages and try to set a purpose for reading. As I’ve been planning for this unit, I find myself asking “What is the purpose of this book? Why should they have to read it?”
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a huge fan of the classics—from Shakespeare to Austen and everyone in between. These books, these “classics” are often difficult books. They’re long, old-fashioned, and they don’t always inspire an immediate connection with the characters. There’s sometimes a distance between the protagonist of a classic book and the reader. It’s difficult to get to know Tess of the d’Urbervilles because she’s separated from us by historical context and vocabulary. Fahrenheit 451 isn’t so old-fashioned that it’s unreadable, but I know that for my students, some of whom are not avid readers, this book will present a challenge. There will be a distance between the way they speak and the way Bradbury’s characters speak.
Many of the books we read now try to decrease that distance by pulling you directly into the emotional action of the novel. Take Little Bee, or even Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These books are written in a relatable fashion; they pull us in and connect us with the characters right away. We feel for them, so we keep reading. A classic, on the other hand, might take you fifty to a hundred pages before you start to connect with the characters. A play by Shakespeare might overwhelm you with Elizabethan English and ultimately prevent you from connecting with the characters. Does that make the “classics” any better or any worse? I don’t think so. I think it just makes them different. It makes them difficult.
So, on the one hand, Fahrenheit 451 is a difficult book because it is a classic. There is a distance between the book and the reader. On the other hand, I think Fahrenheit 451 is difficult for another reason. It’s a book that is difficult because it challenges our assumptions and makes us think about things differently. These types of books are sometimes harsh, sometimes post-apocalyptic, sometimes opposed to our own views. As I’ve been thinking about our purpose for reading Fahrenheit 451, I’ve really come to embrace the idea that these difficult books, just like the classics, are necessary. Why are the necessary? Because they can be our teachers.
We need to be reminded how much is at stake in our society. Bradbury saw the dangers; George Orwell saw the dangers. No matter what your viewpoint or political standing, I think we can all agree that our society has come to a kind of crossroads. There’s no playing it safe anymore, there’s no real political correctness. It seems like we are more divided than ever, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution. In the dystopian world of Bradbury’s novel, that solution was to get rid of the ideas that cause division. By burning the books, by providing mindless entertainment that satisfies the appetite without touching the soul, the characters in his frightening world create a society unified around instant gratification and shallow thinking.
When we read his book, we should be reminded that books have a power that extends beyond the printed page. As Faber tells Montag, “It is not books you need, it’s some of the things that are in books. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us” (78). It’s for this reason that I write in defense of difficult books—it’s not the book itself that matters, it’s the thoughts and ideas contained in those pages. Why else would it be that the difficult books, the books with ideas larger than their covers, are the ones that last the longest?