Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fahrenheit 451: Subversion and the Qualities of Art

The National Endowment for the Arts is sponsoring nationwide reading initiatives called "The Big Read" in which local communities encourage people to read great books. Towson University is pushing Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Rick Davis of the university's library asked me to give a lecture at Towson's opening event for its "Big Read." Below is the lecture in its entirety.

Fahrenheit 451 and The Big Read: A Writer’s Perspective

The first book I read -- all by myself -- was about a blue unicorn, or maybe a blue dragon. I don’t remember the subject or title or author. What I do remember is that I was in first grade, had just learned to read, and the book came from the town library. The day I started the book I didn’t finish it. I don’t know what interrupted; maybe Mom needed help with my sick little sister, or Dad chewed me out for saying a word that rhymes with gull spit. Whatever the reason, I went to bed not even halfway through with the book of the blue creature. But as I dreamed, those pages tugged at me, and early the next morning, when it was dark, before anyone else in the house was awake, I snuck into the living room, and switched on a single lamp.

And, while the world slept, I finished the first book I ever read all by myself.

I’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands of books since. My parents encouraged me, took me to libraries, made Christmas and birthdays occasions to unwrap books. My dad bought me comics whenever I took sick. X-men. Batman. In those days I preferred comics to real books, because, I suppose, they had pictures. But it was not too long before comics led me to sci fi and fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings. The War of the Worlds. Dragons. Time machines.

Turns out most of it wasn’t memorable. What stays with me instead of the books themselves is the discovery I made while reading them.

It was not new then to anyone but me, and it will not be new to you. What I learned is that there is a divide amidst books in that literary genre some people call sci-fi / fantasy / horror and others call speculative fiction. Some of the books are good, some even very good, and others, at best, so-so. The same is true of books in any genre, even literary books, supposedly the highest of the genres. The so-so books are so-so because they do nothing but fulfill the reader’s expectations. Opening to page one of such a fantasy or sci fi book, I already knew what was going to happen. Character, with sidekick or aged mentor or both, goes on quest, finds force of evil, dispatches force of evil with laser rifle or magic sword.
Whatever. Story over. Repeated again and again in thousands of books and, now, movies and video games. Those mediocre books distracted me from whatever was troubling me at that moment – geometry, acne, an argument with my girlfriend – but those books do not stay in my memory because they did not change me. They didn’t help me think new thoughts. They didn’t knock me off the place in the world that I found most comfortable. Though these books were about adventures, there was nothing adventurous about them.

Enter Robert Heinlein. And JRR Tolkien. Kurt Vonnegut. Ursula K. LeGuin. And, yes, Ray Bradbury. These writers wrote about fortress-castles and spaceships, dystopian futures and idyllic pasts as did other writers of speculative fiction. But in their books they did not just speculate on how dogs would one day be replaced by robots, or on the best spell to paralyze a troll.

They speculated about what it means to live, what it means to think, what it means to love. They asked big, spooky questions about the nature of good and evil, about the diversity of the universe, about the weakness and strength of the soul, be it human or alien or otherwise. And these authors offered no answers, because there are no answers to those questions. What we have instead of answers are stories, artfully told, and that’s what these writers created and why their books are still read today – in some cases decades after their first publication. In the case of Fahrenheit 451, it’s been more than 50 years since it first appeared in book stores.

So, these books – the good ones – surprised me. They got inside me. They mucked around in my head and in my heart and in my guts. In that way, they resembled books teachers forced us to read in high school, books such as Lord of the Flies, The Merchant of Venice, To Kill a Mockingbird. Memorable books -- whether sci fi, fantasy or the literary books I mostly read now -- change me from the inside out, turn me over. There’s a word that describes the effect these books have on me. They are subversive. I want to talk about that word. Subversive – and its root word subvert – comes from old Latin or French words meaning to “turn over” and “from below.” These days, we use “subversive” to describe anything or any action that helps undermine – or turn over from below -- an established institution or system. The institution could be a government or church or classroom. The system could be political or economic, or it could be personal: your own way of looking at the world, or the beliefs you’ve never questioned. A subversive book should disturb you, should – by making you uncomfortable -- create in you a rebellion of some sort; a revolution.

I was once among a group of students who met with an Irish writer named John McGahern, who is famous among Irish writers and whose work I highly recommend. He was a small man, a farmer as well as a writer, soft-spoken and generous, with little tufts of hair over his ears and very little atop his head. I don’t remember in what context McGahern said what I am about to tell you, but his words have stayed with me. He told us this: There is nothing more subversive than a person alone in a room reading a book.

Because he was Irish, I believed him. The Irish know about subversion after centuries of working it against the English government or the Roman Catholic church.

What does McGahern’s line about subversion have to do with Fahrenheit 451?

Fahrenheit 451 is about rebellion, about revolution, about subversion. And not just subversion against a government – or any institution -- that decides to burn or censor books. No, Montag, the main character, is a hero because he allows books to work their magic on him, to upset his life, to push him toward new thoughts, to turn him over, from below, and change how he lives in the world.

That’s the trick of good books. Their revolutions, their subversions, act on one reader at a time. You are the reader. The book gets inside you. Maybe you don’t understand at first, but there’s something in those pages that won’t let you go. The words, the story, muck around in your guts. The best books aren’t rarified or sacred, as it sometimes seems when English professors talk about them. Instead, they overflow with spit and blood, mud and grime. They are more the stuff of earth than of heaven. A great poet, also an Irishman, named William Butler Yeats, wrote in a poem that books begin with “a mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,” all clattering about in a place he called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

“The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Which phrase, curiously, reminds me of what Faber, a one-time professor of English, explains to the main character, Montag, in Fahrenheit 451 about good books. Quality literature, he says, has “pores. It has features. It can go under the microscope.” Books are hated and feared, he says, “because they show the pores in the face of life.” “The comfortable people,” says Faber, “want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” I read that and think suddenly of the covers of magazines like Elle or Seventeen or ESPN the magazine where everyone looks perfect, expressionless, their faces air brushed into wax moons. But I think Faber’s not just talking about doctored photographs. His wax moons are a metaphor for any entertainment that reassures people the world is just as they want. They read books that confirm their beliefs; they watch cable channels that pertain only to their interests. Such people turn away – in anger or in fear – from what disturbs them. Montag’s wife, Millie, is this way. After he shows her his books, after those books spill to the floor as husband and wife fight, Millie, writes Bradbury, “sagged away from him and slid down the wall and sat on the floor looking at the books. Her foot touched one and she saw this and pulled her foot away.”

Great writing doesn’t air brush reality. It doesn’t pull its foot away from troubling questions. Great writing, because it works through imagination and prods your memory, takes you deeper into that foul rag and bone shop than do video games or movies or TV shows, which overwhelm you with sound and sight but ignore smell, taste, touch.
Faber’s defintion can be taken, I think, as Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers. Does Bradbury, then, in Fahrenheit 451, follow his character’s good counsel? I’d say yes. We smell the kerosene that splashes from firemen’s hoses onto their gloved hands. We feel the bright heat of a house aflame on our faces. We suffer the hollowness of a man’s stomach as he realizes a woman with whom he’s shared life is no longer alive in any meaningful way, and that she will abandon and betray him.
Does that sound rarified? Well, that’s the trick of good literature. By crawling around in that old rag and bone shop it somehow manages to elevate us. Turns over our earth and suddenly vegetables and flowers and even a few mighty trees take root. Some trick. I want to talk about that trick, and how Ray Bradbury executes it.

First off, he was a reader as are all good writers. You can tell what writers he’s read because you find in his longer paragraphs, filled as they are with metaphors and similes, echoes of 19th century giants such as Melville and Hawthorne and, of course, Baltimore’s own Edgar Allen Poe whose stories hurtle out of the rag and bone shop into a reader’s darkest places. And, as with those 19th-century writers, we can say this about Bradbury:

He knows how to spin a yarn.

Fahrenheit 451 is a thriller. The main character, Montag, is already in trouble on page one, already hiding contraband books from the authorities and from his wife. Chase scenes follow, and violence and explosions.
That Montag risks his life for books makes perfect sense. He himself is a writer. Or at least, though he’s never written a word, he sees the world as poets do, and we learn that on page one with the burning of a house containing books, a pasage written by Bradbury but filtered through Montag’s heart. The sentences sound so beautiful that someone who doesn’t understand English could listen and hear music.

"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies."

As a writer, those are sentences I live to read.

Beautiful sentences. A thrilling plot. Still not enough to raise a book from mediocre to the subversive. The book still needs a beating heart. This one has it. Montag is a fireman with a poet’s soul, but we don’t learn that through his abstract thoughts about beauty and wisdom. We learn it through his five senses. The foul rag and bone shop stuff.

Here’s an example, as Montag, wandering through a wooded wilderness outside his city, comes upon a group of men sitting around a campfire. He is used to seeing fire as something destructive, so he’s surprised to find that fire can warm people, and this knowledge transforms him, teaches him that he is, as all of us are, an animal:
He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different.

"How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long, long time, listening to the crackle of the flames.
There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees, and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence. Montag moved toward this special silence that was concerned with all of the world."

Time was there. Time enough to look at the world and turn it over with his eyes. And silence, a silence concerned with all the world. Time and silence. What every writer wants, what every reader craves. I read those words, and I’m reminded of those thrilling moments when my sister slept, and my brother slept, and my parents, too, and I sat up with one lamp against the darkness, a book in my lap. How powerful I was then. And that’s what John McGahern was talking about when he spoke of the most subversive thing. A person alone in a room reading a book. With time. With silence. Revolutions begin in such places. Rebellions. The greatest of all changes.

So, in the spirit of Fahrenheit 451, I urge you to start a revolution. Rebel against your own ideas of what is best to read, of what is most fun to do. Pick up a book that’s strange to you. You can do far worse than to start with this one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

13.5 miles for literature

One of my colleagues at Towson will be running a half marathon soon to raise money for Towson University's English Department reading series. Carol Quinn directs the reading series, and greater love hath no director for her project than to pound Baltimore pavement on its behalf. Why am I not running, too? If you know me, you know I only run when there's a basketball to chase. But I am supporting Carol's efforts with cash, and you can, too. Call 443-691-9530 to help.

And here's a Web site so you can schedule your life around the upcoming readings. I have the pleasure of reading Oct. 3, along with poet Clarinda Harriss. Her latest mini-collection, Dirty Blue Voice, just came out from Half Moon Editions in Atlanta.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

If you happen to be at the Corn Palace ...

South Dakota Public Television will broadcast a June reading I gave from "House of Good Hope" at the American Indian Journalism Institute where I've been fortunate to teach the last three summers. AIJI is a terrific program that helps college students -- and particularly Native students -- to find careers in journalism. At last summer's institute I gave a reading from "House of Good Hope" and then answered questions. You can catch it on SDPB on Sunday, Sept. 16, 3 p.m. CST.