On Editing and Censorship: Notes from Farenheit 451

I recently finished revisiting a very important book: Fahrenheit 451. Now, besides feeling shocked by how much I missed when I read it the first time (note: I was in 7th grade, so naturally I missed some of the points), I was actually frightened by how relevant its message is to today’s world. My world. The similarities were disturbing. Bradbury’s fictional world has leapt from the pages and become a real, frightening possibility.

I came to this realization and suddenly every sentence became important. Looking back at my book, I have whole passages marked and highlighted, with dog-ears on the corner to remind myself that THESE WORDS HAVE TO BE SHARED. Underlines, brackets, you name it mark up almost the entire book, because people need to be reminded about the importance of literature.

Ray Bradbury included a Coda at the end of this version which addresses the idea of censorship and editing. I’m going to quote a long passage from this at the end of this admittedly long-winded post. But first, I have to give my own opinion. Bradbury says “there is more than one way to burn a book.” I say, there is more than one way to silence a person. You can throw them into jail, shoot them where they stand, threaten their families and their lives, destroy their businesses, etc. We’ve seen this in the past and we definitely see this today. But there is a more insidious form of silencing that occurs on the most basic of levels. A lot of people today are censoring themselves.

I’m not talking about censoring their language by saying “drat” or “fudge” instead of other (in my opinion, more satisfying) words. I’m talking about both conscious and unconscious censorship of the content of our status updates, tweets, Instagram posts, blog posts, essays and conversations. People are afraid to say anything anymore. They are afraid to post something that won’t get “liked” or “shared.” They are afraid to offend someone else with their own beliefs. They are afraid to have someone disagree with them. So what do they do? They rephrase their posts, they shorten their tweets (both because there is a character limit and because it is apparently the definition of uncool to use proper grammar and elaborate on your post), and they water down their message until it is almost meaningless, because that is the only way you can ensure that everyone will like it.

I’m not excluding myself from this. I have often rephrased, shortened, misspelled, watered-down and otherwise raped and pillaged the English language for the sake of likes and favorites. Honestly, I almost didn’t post this because I was afraid no one would even read it, because this is long. We have reached an amazing milestone in technology where we can broadcast almost anything to anyone and everyone. However, because of this we feel the need to appeal to everyone as well. We are constantly seeking a way to express our emotions or thoughts in a brief and succinct fashion, because that is what catches people’s attention. We have been taught how to shorten our expression to mere blurbs, because despite the advancements in technology that are actually saving us time, people are too busy to slow down and read something longer than 144 characters. People are now simply communicating via pictures, which, while artistic, cannot honestly be called advancement. Cavemen were communicating by “posting” pictures on their “walls” long before we did (#hipstercavemen).   Our need for speed has made us devalue the beauty and power of prose.

Ray Bradbury addresses a similar problem with editing in his Coda, as I said before. The following excerpt follows his description of a request he received to reprint a few of his short stories in an anthology of 400 short stories for school readers, which would obviously require severe editing of all of the stories:

“Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like-in the finale-Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

How did I react to all of the above?

By “firing” the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.

“Shut the door, they’re coming through the window, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” are the words to an old song. They fit my life-style with newly arriving butcher/censors every month.”

Later on, he says:

“For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conservationist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, the simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer—he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.

In sum, 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.

All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.”

 

There are many, many more words of wisdom to be found in Ray Bradbury’s works, but Fahrenheit 451 and this Coda are especially important to me in light of recent trends.

So, let’s try really hard not to censor our thoughts to please the masses, but instead, share the things we feel we need to say. Complex language is one of the most powerful tools we have. Let’s use it.

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One thought on “On Editing and Censorship: Notes from Farenheit 451

  1. […] On Editing and Censorship: Notes from Farenheit 451. […]

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