In honor of Banned Books Week, I wanted to share a paper I wrote a few years ago (Spring 2016, to be exact) about a banned book. The project was to pick a book from the banned list, research a specific instance of banning, and write a paper on it, inserting our own opinions as necessary.
I chose Fahrenheit 451, because it became one of my favorites. When I first read it in eighth grade, I hated it, but after I reread it in the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, I loved it. I don’t know why it resonated so much with me the second time I read it, but I do believe it’s a book that everyone should read. Even better, it’s a short book so it doesn’t take a lot of time to finish.
I still think this is a good essay, so to round off the end of Banned Books Week, I will now leave you with this. I ended up getting an A on this, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
ENG 310 – Children’s Lit
12 April 2016
“Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at Which Book-Paper Catches Fire and Burns”
On September 21, 2006, at the beginning of the 25th Annual Banned Books Week, a parent at Caney Creek High School approached the school board with an urgent plea that one of the books on his daughter’s school reading list, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, be dropped from the curriculum. Alton Verm’s daughter, fifteen-year-old Diana Verm, was against the language in the book and brought it to the attention of her father, who then followed the school’s procedure towards getting the book banned from the reading list, according to YourHoustonNews.com. YourHoustonNews says that the procedures for attempting to ban a book are listed on the school district’s website, but unfortunately, in the ten years since this book was challenged, the website must have had an overhaul, because no amount of searching could reveal where these banning procedures are for the Conroe Independent School District. There is, however, a single form for making a complaint or grievance (which the school defines as the same thing) on the website (Conroe Independent School District).
While Diana Verm’s main contention with the novel was its use of language, her father found several other things to disagree with by flipping through the book. According to the Houston Chronicle, Alton Verm says, “God’s name in vain should not be tolerated in the classroom” (Stauffer). Alton goes farther than that, though, citing “discussion of being drunk, smoking cigarettes, violence, “dirty talk,” references to the Bible […]. He said the book’s material goes against their religions beliefs” (Micek). Eventually, in Fahrenheit 451, the reader learns that one of the books that has been banned and ends up getting burned is the Bible, which could be one of the religious issues that the Verms have with the book. They never specifically mention why the material goes against their religious beliefs in any of the articles I found about the case.
The reason Diana mentioned Fahrenheit 451 to her father in the first place was her contention that there was “very bad language” in the book that was “offending people” (Micek). After using a search tool on an entire-text .pdf of Fahrenheit 451, I have come up with the following figures: in this book, there are sixteen instances of the word “hell” being used, either as a curse or an exasperation; thirty-seven instances of of the word “damn” being used, mostly as “damned;” one instance of “God damn” being used (the other instances of “God’s name being taken in vain” might come from the characters repeatedly saying, “Good God!” throughout the novel); one instance of the word “bastard” being used (in reference to the characters on the television screens in Montag’s parlour); and two instances of the word “ass” being used, once in reference to being “goofs and asses” and once in reference to “falling on one’s ass.” The .pdf I sourced these counts from has no page numbers, but I have included it in the works cited page since I did use it to search for the language that Diana insisted was in there. These are the only foul words that I could find in the book; all other searches for other curse words came up negative. All of these words can be found in the Bible, so Diana’s argument that these words offend people might not hold water.
The school board voted to keep Fahrenheit 451 under the curriculum, with one of the voting members, Mel Brown, saying that he thought this was the right decision, since “If you ban books because of violence and sex, you’d have to ban the Bible” (Stauffer). According to the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, there are 1,321 instances in the Bible that deal with violence (Wells). The same source lists 255 instances in the Bible that deal with sex as well, aside from the entirety of the book of Song of Solomon, which is a long metaphor for sex between a husband and wife (Wells). I say “instances” instead of “verses” here because the website sometimes lists up to ten verses per numbered line if they are from the same passage of text.
While none of the articles mentioned whether the case had gone to court or not, they did mention Ellen Spalding, a member of the law firm that represented the administration in the hearing, who believes that the book is “an incredible teaching tool” and that it was “ironic” to be “talking about banning a book about censorship” (Stauffer). Since Ellen Spalding is a member of a law firm, it may be safe to assume that while the case did indeed go to court, the ultimate ruling was that the book was not removed from either the school or the local library.
As for Diana Verm, she was given the option to read an alternative book, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. One other classmate also opted out of reading Fahrenheit 451, so this alternate book was chosen due to the “similar themes” it shares with the original book (Micek). Chris Hines, the current superintendent of the Conroe Independent School District, says that Fahrenheit 451 has been used for at least nineteen years in the district, and possibly for many more years before that, and estimates that about one percent of students elect to read a different book than assigned (Micek). Since 2002, the Montgomery County Memorial Library System (the public library system where the school district is placed) has had 65 books challenged, but only two of them were removed: one for factual inaccuracies and one for not following library guidelines (Micek). In contrast, in four years under Chris Hines’s administration, there have been no formal challenges against any books in the school district aside from Fahrenheit 451 (Micek).
To me, personally, there is nothing more ironic than banning a book that is about burning books, particularly by someone who admits that he never read the book, and especially during Banned Books Week (Micek). Not only that, but had he actually read the book, the skimming that he had done that resulted in him finding “violence” and “weapons” would have made sense, since the book talks about violence and these weapons in a negative light and does not condone their use (Stauffer). The most shocking thing to me is that this challenge happened almost ten years ago, as it sounds much more like something that would happen in the current world, with the “special snowflakes” of society deciding what they can and cannot read due to their delicate constitutions.
When I first read Fahrenheit 451, I was forced to do so for school reading in eighth grade. At the time, I thought it was extremely boring and I did not understand why it was important for us to read it. Now, though, I understand why it is important, particularly in this day and age. Even though the book was first published in 1956, the themes it portrays are still applicable today. Censorship is still going on, and the more we allow “Big Brother” (to quote another famous dystopian novel) to monitor what we read, the more control we give up and the more freedom we lose.
I agree with Ellen Spalding, the defense lawyer who declared that it was ironic to be banning a book about censorship (Stauffer). This entire situation is a learning process, wherein Fahrenheit 451 is used as the prime example of what will happen if books continue to be banned (or challenged, as in this case) simply because someone does not agree with the content. If you look back at the list of books that have been challenged or banned, particularly books in schools, the main connection all of them share is that the challenge started with either one parent or a group of them who decided the contents of the book was not appropriate, and it spiraled upwards from there. If you look at another book series that has been high on the “Challenged” list recently, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, it is usually challenged due to religious conflicts. How ironic, then, that “strip away the magic and the Dr. Seuss creatures and the wizards and sorcerers, and ultimately the series boils down to the message that love, understanding, and tolerance are the most important things in the world” (Deezen). While Fahrenheit 451 does not have the warm, fuzzy message that the Harry Potter books contain, it still holds a very important lesson: if you let people tell you what to read, eventually you will let them tell you what to think and how to act and, eventually, we may all end up where the humans in Bradbury’s most famous novel did.
Being allowed to read an alternative book may be harmful to the student’s education in that they will not receive the same lessons that their classmates did. There is only one Fahrenheit 451, and there may never be another. People may write on the same subject, but there may never be one that sticks around as long as Fahrenheit 451 has, or one whose message endures and is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. How ironic is it that “The 1956 science fiction novel describes a futuristic world where all books, and therefore knowledge, has been banned and censored for fear of offending someone,” when people today are still challenging books because they are offended by them (Stauffer)? If you attempt to remove everything that has the possibility of offending someone, we would be left in a grey blob of a world where individuality and creative expression are frowned upon. Banning a book (or attempting to ban a book) takes away someone else’s opportunity to choose what they read. Simply because one person does not agree with the contents of a book does not mean that the book itself is bad. Leaving the book on the shelf was the right decision.
I do not believe that books should be banned, although maybe they should be monitored for content for specific grades and ages. While a ten year old may possess a college reading level, that does not mean they are ready to read something like Lolita. If things are banned, however, then the kid is going to find another way to get into the book, and then there will be a big fiasco somewhere. If books are not banned, that opens up the opportunity to have discussions with the parents or the teachers about specific subjects. Kids are a lot smarter and more understanding than many people give them credit for. Being able to read challenging books (or, indeed, “challenged” books) opens up so many doors that would not have been available to them if the book they were assigned did not exist. I believe Bradbury himself said it best when he found out that some schools were censoring his works: “Do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book” (“Fahrenheit”).
Bradbury, Ray. “Fahrenheit 451 Complete Text.pdf.” Fahrenheit 451 Complete Text. Trans. Frincine Tait. Google Docs, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. < https://docs.google.com/ file/d/1JLxF6bDLag8pOxlpYz9IpRxq1sQJY1YvxrlyeG4uUFmUVhzU-aEqq0lTxGkq/ edit>.
Conroe Independent School District. “Conroe Independent School District Complaint Form.” Conroe Independent School District. Conroe Independent School District, 26 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http://conroeisd.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/complaint.pdf>.
Deezen, Eddie. “12 Books That Have (Ironically) Been Banned in the U.S.” Neatorama. Purch, 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http://www.neatorama.com/2011/09/29/12-books- that-have-ironically-been-banned-in-the-u-s/>.
“Fahrenheit 451.” The Big Read. National Endowment for the Arts. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http:// http://www.neabigread.org/books/fahrenheit451/readers-guide/historical-context/>.
Micek, Kassia. “Parent Criticizes Book ‘Fahrenheit 451′” Your Houston News. Houston Community Newspapers & Media Group, 1 Oct. 2006. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http:// http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/archives/parent-criticizes-book-fahrenheit/ article_b1136698-3645-5bd3-9911-717d8d5c241a.html>.
Stauffer, Kimberly. “Keeping ‘Fahrenheit’ in School Becomes Hot Topic for CISD.” Houston Chronicle. Hearst Newspapers, 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http://www.chron.com/ neighborhood/woodlands-news/article/Keeping-Fahrenheit-in-school-becomes-hot- topic-1882758.php>.
Wells, Steve. “Cruelty and Violence in the Bible.” The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, 1999. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/cruelty/ long.html>.
Wells, Steve. “Sex in the Bible.” The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, 1999. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. <http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/sex/long.html>.
What’s your favorite “banned book”? Do you think you’d ever agree with banning a particular book? (And no, Twilight doesn’t count.)
I know there are books that I haven’t enjoyed reading, and whose subject matter made me incredibly uncomfortable (Bearheart would be one….yikes!), but I wouldn’t ban them just because I didn’t like them. Allow everyone to have their own opinions on things, and don’t try to force your opinions on others.
And as always, keep reading.