Books as Power

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Daniella Choynowski


EL 336: Topics in Media and Culture

Dr. Jerz

Books as Books: Books as Power

         Since the standardization of print and subsequent distribution growth, books have served an illuminative function, stimulating in people the growth of new provocative ideas. Along with that power came the threat and fear of change. John W. Studebaker wrote that “books are among our best allies in the fight to make democracy work” (Fishburn 234) because they encourage free and independent philosophy and thought. Book burning was a tool used by “enemies of books-of all free and independent thought” (230) to attempt to rid society of individual thought. The novels 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 both serve as examples of the function of book burning/destruction- and how it fails.

         Ultimately, book burning fails to achieve the desired effect of uniform thought because “no man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever” (Fishburn 240).

Uniform thought, in the utopian sense, is necessary in 1984 for happiness; if there is no opposition, there is continuous peace. There is an entire department that works on the destruction of “any kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance” (41). The books contain thoughts that could complete undo what Big Brother and The Party have started with Newspeak, which aims to replace old words with the new so that “thoughtcrime [is] literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to describe it” (53). One of the biggest threats to Oceania is perpetuated “tyrant” Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. “The book” contained all of the Party’s secrets, which they called “a compendium of all the heresies” (0. Theory and Practice revealed all the secrets of the Party. The constant war continued regardless of the fact that the three world superpowers “have no material cause for fighting” (190). Instead, the war is “a war for labor power” (191), a motivation tool to keep productivity up. Goldstein wrote of the past desire that the world would develop into a “society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient” (193). Instead, Oceania developed into a totalitarian state. “Experiment and invention” (193) heading towards a utopian goal halted because “scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society” (193). Most existing copies of Goldstein’s novel were seized by the thoughtpolice, who “destroy them almost as fast as we can produce them” (181) said O’Brien. Though O’Brien was later revealed to be one of the Party’s innermost henchmen, he speaks the truth about the results of book destruction: “The book is indestructible. If the last copy were gone, we could reproduce it almost word for word” (181). Book burning and destruction “does not destroy the idea” (Fishburn 234).

          The human’s desire for reasoning, the “why”, cannot be extinguished by society; curiosity is ingrained and natural. In Fahrenheit 451’s world, reading is illegal and book burning is the main occupation. Montag and crew arrive at a house to destroy a stack of books, only to be confronted by the owner, who screams “you can’t ever have my books!” (35). The woman stands as a relic from the old days when independent thought and discourse reigned. Now, society functions as a “pleasure dome”, where books’ “hard-earned and disturbing messages [are replaced] with ‘fun’ experiences” (Trout 1). After the woman’s suicide, Montag becomes disturbed by his job; he wonders what “could make a woman stay in a burning house”, and assumes that “there must be something there” (47) in books. He questions fire chief Beatty, who explains that “books disturb people by posing questions and contradicting each other” (1). Since questioning not “how a thing was done, but why” (Bradbury 55) is considered dangerous philosophy, and not pure hedonistic pleasure. The pleasure dome masks reality. Montag reasons that “because we’re having so much fun, we’ve forgotten the world” (65).

          Bradbury’s novel is a figurative illustration of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Hedonism masks the reality of the world and casts a shadow of the world as solely good and only existing to pleasure its inhabitant. As Montag discovers books, he is untied from the rock and his eyes are open to the truth: “the world is starving, but we’re well fed…the world works hard and we play… [that’s] why we’re hated so much” (65). Reality is full of emotions other than pleasure; there is also pain.

         The questioning of the world is brought on by the reading of provocative material; the ideas found in books allow people to examine themselves in a way that rules and commands can never encourage. Books, for Montag, “can get us half out of the cave…they might just stop us from making the same damn mistakes again” (65). Without the provocation brought on by the alternative ideas contained in literature, society is at a standstill.

         Thought the novels serve as exaggerated observations, what we can take from both is that book destruction cannot eliminate the human’s curiosity for thought-provoking material or destroy independent thought and reason. “Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory” (Fishburn 236).

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. 7th. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.

Fishburn, Matthew. “Books Are Weapons: Wartime Responses to the Nazi Bookfires of 1933.” Book History 10:1 (2007): 233-51. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 7 May 2008

Orwell, George. 1984. centennial. New York: Plume-Harcourt Brace, 1949.

Trout, Paul. “Fahrenheit 451 Revisited.” National Forum 81:2 (spring 2001): 3-4. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 7 May 2008

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