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Reading Is a Prime Defense Against Assault on Our Rights

September 13, 2004|Francine Prose | Francine Prose is a novelist, a contributing editor at Harper's and vice president of the board of trustees for the PEN American Center. A longer article on this subject appears in the fall 2004 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

As a child, one of my favorite novels was Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Its subject is book burning -- 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which books catch fire -- but I knew that the novel was science fiction.

Later, when I heard about the burning of books by the Nazis, and about the ruthless, systematic suppression of freedom of speech in other countries, all that too seemed to me to be, in a way, science fiction. That is, it might as well have been happening on another planet. I believed that nothing like that could happen on our planet because we had the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to protect our basic freedoms of speech and expression.

But the United States is a young country, and so it has taken us longer to learn the painful adult lessons that older countries learned decades and even centuries ago. Now, at last, we are old enough to discover what it is like to have an administration with little interest in safeguarding those powerful documents.

The word "patriotism" is increasingly being used as a bludgeon with which to attack critics of the shameful war in Iraq, as a gag to silence dissenters accused of being unpatriotic. Meanwhile, laws have been passed that were designed to have a chilling effect on our determination to exert our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. For example, the Patriot Act contains provisions requiring librarians and booksellers to respond to FBI requests for information about what ordinary citizens are reading.

It's become increasingly clear to many American writers, and indeed to many others among the American people, that something has to be done to resist and counteract this. But the question is, as always, what to do and how to do it.

One small, simple solution: Keep reading, even knowing someone may be reading over your shoulder.

Readers are inclined by sensibility to look beneath the surface, to analyze and make distinctions. As Americans, we need to hold on to the freedom to make crucial distinctions, to see clearly, to think intelligently and logically, to avoid the siren songs of prejudice, ideology, nationalism and sectarianism, of simplistic and reductive rhetoric and propaganda, regardless of their source. As citizens of the world, we need to remember -- as Samuel Beckett said, echoing Chekhov a century before -- "in the particular is contained the universal."

This seems especially important as political extremists encourage us to think about one another not as human beings but in categories that grow, daily, at once broader and more narrow, coarser, more ignorant, heartless and brutal.

We need to stay exquisitely attuned to the chasm between our own observations of reality and the lies we are being told. And as lovers of literature, we cannot forget what literature continues to teach us: that each of us is a unique entity with something -- that mystery called human nature -- in common that should be, for us, a bottomless well of empathy and compassion.

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