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Banned Book Week is September 24 – 30

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is no stranger to the banned book list. Ironic, since book banning and its more militant cousin—book burning—are practices Bradbury depicts as staples of an undemocratic society steadily losing its intelligence and humanity.

Bradbury vehemently denied that Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship, even though book burning features prominently in the story. He felt so strongly about this that he walked out of a university talk he was giving when students from the audience refused to concede that the book is not about censorship. According to Bradbury, the novel is a warning about the dangers of succumbing to the influence of television, and that the problem starts with the people, not the government.

Why was he so strongly against censorship as a theme?

Maybe he felt as if people were too focused on censorship so they missed what he felt was the main message. Still, it seems like an author would be thrilled to have written a nuanced piece of literature that seamlessly depicts multiple themes and sparks heated discussion.

Bradbury’s unwavering insistence on this stance is strange. It’s almost like a scaled-down version of censorship to deny so strongly that his book is about anything other than what he said it is.

He wrote it, so he’s right.

This argument is often used as a justification for Bradbury’s stance. If Bradbury says the novel is not about censorship then it’s not because he wrote it.

An author’s perspective is always interesting to note, but it’s not necessary to the work itself. We filter all art through our personal experiences and knowledge. This is what makes our connection to it so strong. It’s why a book can literally be life-changing. That connection doesn’t exist if we ignore our own interpretations—or even worse, actively label them “wrong”—in favor of the author’s vision.

A few years ago, the poet Terrance Hayes spoke at Southeastern Louisiana University at an event much like the one Bradbury stormed out of. He read several of his poems, and then had a Q&A with the audience. One student asked him to explain the meaning of one of his poems, and Hayes said, “I don’t know what it’s about. The poem belongs to you. I only wrote it.”

The reader’s experience is the only one that matters.

Literature facilitates learning and growth by allowing us to discuss our own interpretations of the text. If we blindly adhere to the author’s opinion, we miss out on a real connection to the story. And even worse, we miss a valuable opportunity to learn how other people’s experiences affect their understanding of a book.

Is Fahrenheit 451 about censorship? That’s entirely up to you.

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