The Power of Words: How Fahrenheit 451 Inspired a 13-year-old Boy to Think Outside the Box
It seems strange, looking back now, how much one book—one I first read when I was 13 years old—would influence my career, and my thoughts about the world.
The book is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and I was in eighth grade. I wasn’t a particular fan of Bradbury’s, or of science fiction, or of keeping up with teacher-assigned reading. But the epigraph in the opening pages, a quote from the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, immediately connected with something in my rebellious teenage psyche. It was one simple sentence: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”
What I found inside was an engaging tale about a future time when books are banned, mindless television dominates, and firemen set fires (mostly to books and the homes where they’re found) instead of stopping them. The protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, begins to wonder about the past, when books were ubiquitous, and intense thought was something to be valued. He starts to question the meaningless chatter-filled world around him.
As I read, I saw something I’d never noticed before: subtext. First with individual sentences, then with paragraphs, then pages. I realized that as the prose described one thing (the protagonist smoking a cigarette on a moonlit walk with a neighbor girl, for instance), it was really talking about something else. The smoke clearing was no longer just smoke. The shadows were no longer just shadows.
Most people think the book is about totalitarianism and the dangers of censorship—and it is. (Ironic, considering how many times the book has been banned.) But what it’s really about—and Bradbury said as much before his death—is the value of literature, and the value of knowledge. In a world more filled than ever with banal distractions, disposable factoids, and intentionally inane entertainment, there may be no more important human values. This is what connects humanity over generations, over centuries and millennia. Books, the collected thoughts and words, allow us to converse with Greek sages and the characters of Shakespeare in a way that transcends place and time.
Printed words exist in a real space. They can be handed from one person to another, even when the people in charge would prefer otherwise. They can be stored in an attic or in a box that you can give to a grandchild. They can be saved or lost; and they can be found, perhaps by someone who had never been exposed to such thoughts. They stand for the fact that someone somewhere thought something was important enough to write it down and print it and bind it in a way that would last for generations. Books are proof that we are thinking. And contemplative, critical thinking is what keeps humanity moving forward, building, improving. When thinking stops, progress halts.
Now I’m one of the few people lucky enough to write for a living. I work for a magazine that, fortunately for me (and the readers), prizes thought and important storytelling. It’s presumptuous (and not particularly productive) to imagine anything I write will be around decades from now, like the story of Guy Montag. But the lessons—thinking deeper, remembering that the printed word is more than just ink and paper—have never escaped me. And when someone gives me ruled paper, I write the other way.
Michael Mooney is a member of D Academy and the staff writer at D Magazine. A longer version of this article will appear in the April 2013 issue. Mooney has won numerous awards, including awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Hearst Corporation Nonfiction Prize for Literary Excellence, First Place at the Mayborn Conference, and the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association.