IT'S HARD to ignore the irony that Fahrenheit 451 is the book selected for this year's Big Read, a series of events sponsored by Live Oak Public Libraries promoting community-wide attention toward a single book.
Throughout April, the public library system along with several partners will host discussion groups, a film, a lecture, two spoken word poetry events, and a day-long symposium, all based on the futuristic 1953 novel by Ray Bradbury.
In recent years, community reading promotions have become something of a springtime ritual in Savannah, sponsored by organizations ranging from the Georgia Center for the Book to the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation to Armstrong Atlantic State University.
As azaleas blossoms fade and pollen covers outdoor furniture, local readers have gathered over the years to ponder Janisse Ray’s tale of growing up near a Georgia junkyard and the fate of the Georgia ecosystem in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, or the various guises of human evil as revealed by O’Connor in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
This is the first year that Live Oak Public Libraries has sponsored Savannah’s Big Read, after assisting AASU last year on Big Read events for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
On a national level, the Big Read is “an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of American culture” according to the NEA’s Big Read website. This year, 400 communities are expected to participate in organized reading activities, funded in part through grants from NEA. Big Read communities choose from among sixteen books selected by the NEA for reading events. Along with funding, recipients like the Live Oak Public Libraries are provided with materials designed to help promote and organize the city-wide discussions.
The Joy Luck Club, To Kill A Mockingbird, My Antonia, and The Maltese Falcon are among the books that Big Read communities can choose through the NEA program.
Live Oak Public Libraries selected Fahrenheit 451 “for its universality and timeliness,” said Constance Coleman, Eastside Regional Manager and coordinator of this year’s program in Savannah.
“This is a period in our lives when freedom is almost rare. It’s nice to have that intellectual freedom reinforced. Kids especially are getting away from the printed word. Everything is electronic. It’s pretty dramatic and pretty scary when people are being condemned for having books.”
From his 1950’s vantage point, author Ray Bradbury predicted a future America in Fahrenheit 451 that looks both ominous and extreme. With a government attempting to control what people think, Bradbury’s America is a place where firemen are employed to burn books, as well as the homes of people who own them.
Only crazy people and criminals venture outdoors. Newspapers and liberal arts colleges are long extinct. Former college professors live in secret itinerant communities. Households are constructed around central TV rooms with screens for all surrounding walls. Ubiquitous “seashell” earpieces are all the rage, for listening to the latest news.
Although Bradbury didn’t predict computers, Blackberries, or the criminalization of cigarettes (most of the women in the book chain smoke) the similarities between Fahrenheit 451 and Savannah circa 2008 generate a few questions.
Here’s a set of questions that come to mind:
Is the Big Read, a nationwide reading program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and supported locally by the publicly funded library system, fulfilling the prophecy of Fahrenheit 451 by promoting the reading of only sixteen books?
The NEA calls itself “an independent agency of the federal government.” Is such an entity possible?
Under the larger umbrella of censorship, how far apart are a society in which books are forbidden and one in which, of the millions of books available in English, a government reading program selects only sixteen titles for nationwide discussion?
It’s an irony that should generate plenty of debate at Big Read events all month.