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Perspective

A Book for L.A., 'Fahrenheit' Still Hits Hot Buttons

Ray Bradbury's '53 novel is a timely pick for a local reading campaign.

April 16, 2002|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many lifelong readers, I view books as a solitary passion, a pleasure best savored on one's own. I tend to be suspicious of efforts to make books communal, to expand the relationship beyond the one to one. In the abstract, I see the value of, say, the now-defunct Oprah's Book Club, the way it exposed literature to a wide swath of the culture, but the truth is that, when it comes to reading, I just want to be left alone.

Yet I can't help but feel a powerful affinity for the One Book, One City L.A. campaign going on this month under the auspices of the Central Library and the mayor's office. Partly, I suppose, that's because it's hard to be cynical about anything that frames Los Angeles in terms of literature, that pushes reading as an essential filter for the city to understand itself.

Equally compelling is the selection of Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451" as the volume Angelenos are all meant to be reading, a pick so oddly appropriate, it's hard to believe a politician made the call. Reportedly chosen by Mayor James K. Hahn, "Fahrenheit 451" is one of the iconic works of science fiction, a futuristic fable in which literature is illegal and firemen are called to start fires, not stop them, torching any building in which books have been found.

"It's so timely, it's eerie," says Louise Steinman, director of literary programs at the Central Library. "There's an urgency to talk about censorship and civil liberties, to have a public discourse on these issues. And this helps create a forum for that to happen in a natural and comfortable way."

The concern about censorship, of course, is hardly exclusive to the present; as Leo Braudy, professor of English and cultural studies at USC, points out, "It's always relevant in the current moment." Yet in a society that seems hopelessly confused about the balance between security and freedom, Bradbury's novel makes for an uncanny cautionary tale. Immersing in its landscape--where war may be declared at any instant, and people deflect their fear and disaffection by watching interactive TV dramas or racing through the streets in jet-propelled cars--is to find yourself in an extrapolation of the present, with sparks of recognition flying off nearly every page.

"I'm afraid of children my own age," laments Clarisse, the 17-year-old misfit who helps plant the first seeds of doubt in the mind of Montag, the novel's fireman protagonist. "They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I'm afraid of them and they don't like me because I'm afraid."

There's an immediacy here that builds further into the story. "If you don't want a man unhappy politically," Bradbury writes later in the novel, "don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.... Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change."

What's interesting about "Fahrenheit 451's" politics is that, when the book was written, Bradbury was commenting on his times, in which the dawn of McCarthyism threatened the free flow of ideas. Its continued relevance may have something to tell us about how little things have changed. "I was writing about what I was beginning to notice," Bradbury says. "About how we were encouraging people to be dumb."

Certainly, that will be one of the topics at discussion groups this week at about 20 library branches and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf stores throughout L.A. (For a full schedule, visit the library Web site at www.lapl.org.)

"For us," explains city librarian Susan Kent, "the focus is the importance of books and reading, of libraries and the 1st Amendment." Another reason, though, why "Fahrenheit 451" continues to resonate--at least for Angelenos--is that it's very much an L.A. book. Unlike Seattle, which inaugurated the "One Book, One City" model in 1998 with Russell Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter," or Chicago, which chose Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the idea here is to read one of our own. Bradbury moved to Southern California as a teenager and has often invoked the Central Library as his alma mater; he wrote the original version of "Fahrenheit 451," a novella called "The Fireman," on a rental typewriter in a library basement at UCLA.

His work, Braudy suggests, "has always dealt with individuals and individual will in the face of an oppressive government trying to impose its values, which corresponds to the theme of Southern California individualism."

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