I'm not a huge fan of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451-- a cautionary tale written back in 1953 about the evils of censorship, government control, and wall-to-wall flat panel televisions. Long story short it is about a society where books are banned and firemen are hired to burn books rather than extinguish fires. Human emotion is deemed dangerous and unnecessary and people zone out by taking sedatives, watching wall to wall televison and listening to radio programs through portable shell like earpieces. Walking is deemed a suspect activity and people get around in very very fast cars and on monorails.
You'd think that as a librarian, I would love a book like this--especially the part where an old woman is willing to die in a fire with her beloved books, rather than live without them. But I actually think that F451 is kind of over the top and preachy. Maybe it is because I love our flat panel TV. Maybe it is because I understand the value of a well placed sedative. Maybe it is because at the end of the book, all of the women are dead and the rebel intellectuals charged with saving society are all men. And maybe it is because much of what Bradbury predicted would happen to American society--actually HAS happened--and we are STILL reading--albeit in different forms.
Nevertheless, the National Endowment for the Arts thinks that the book is timely and important and has funded community wide Big Reads across the United States--including my home towns of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. And readers , and viewers and play goers think it is an important book, because people of all ages are showing up to talk about the work.
You can see all the events, including the book exchange bonfire at the link below:
I love Big Reads--and will participate regardless of what books are chosen--so for the past month I have been enmeshed in F451--the book, the 1966 Truffaut movie, and this weekend, the play.
But by my third F451 event, I was, for lack of a better expression "burned out"
And good book group leaders need to generate fair and civil discussion, even when they hate the book.
So for the icebreaker at the Salon Menlo film/book discussion, I went with an old book leader trick--the vocabulary quiz.
Does this harken back to grade school?
Yes. But that's a good thing.
My readers have always enjoyed vocabulary quiz. One reason is because I give prizes--usuallysomething book related like bookmarks, extra copies of paperbacks that I either have read or received as gifts, or T-shirts with sayings like:
"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read"--Groucho Marx.
Nothing like a little Groucho Marx to brighten up a F451 discussion.
But I digress
Another reason that my readers enjoy (public) vocabulary quizzes is because many of them are competitive creatures.
We can't all win Pulitzers. We can't all pull up to the library in Ferraris. But we know from big words!
Now of course, in order for the vocabulary quiz to work, you have to have an author who uses big words.
Or you have to have an author who uses words that everyone thinks they know the meaning of--but are hard pressed to define.
Technology writers excel at this.
For example, if you live in Silicon Valley , at your next dinner party, ask people to define "cloud computing"
But I digress again.
Another author who provides lots of material for vocabulary quizzes is Edgar Alan Poe.
With him you get words like SEDGE and CATATONIA
Also good for big words are the late William F. Buckley and his very much alive son Christopher.
But Bradbury has his share of hard words, too.
Take, for example, the word PROBOSCIS--which is the combination nose/mouth of the mechanical hound in the book--a robot like creature that uses scent to track down social misfits--killing them with a sharp object that protrudes from the proboscis.
PRO, I explain, comes from the Latin for forward. BOSCIS comes from the Latin word for nourish.
A reader cries out in recognition. "You mean like Bosco, the chocolate syrup?!!""
Readers of a certain age fondly recall Bosco.
And then its time for the next word used by the writers who describe Bradbury's work.
What is DYSTOPIA?
There is a show of hands and some bolder readers call out answers.
"No, it is not a beverage," I say.
"Yes, it is the opposite of UTOPIA.
I want them to expand upon the concept as a vocubulary word and as it applies to F451
Tell me more,," I say.
(This is another book leader trick--just say, "tell me more" and people usually will.)
"Dystopia is a bleak, sad place, an evil place, a place with no trees or nature," the readers respond.
"People living in a dystopia have no control over their lives--someone or something else controls them."
"Correct," I say, relishing the chance to show off, myself. That's because whenever I don't like a book I have to lead a discussion of, I spend way too much time researching the genre it belongs to.
"Did you know that in film and literature there are many kinds of dystopia?" I exclaim.
There is the alien dystopia, where evil aliens control society.
There is corporate dystopia--like what we see in the televison show Mad Men.
And then there is the dystopia we see in books and movies like F451 and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
This is called post-apocalyptic dystopia
(Google post-apocalyptic dystopia and you will get 181,000 hits)
The discussion now moves quite intelligently into the landscape and society of F451.
We then talk about the end of the book, when the rebels, who have memorized the great works of literature--using the books they have hidden and will then destroy themselves--prepare to go forth and rebuild a society recently destroyed by nuclear war.
We are impressed by the characters who have each learned the content of an entire book-- which they will record once again in safer times. Will they succeed?
What book would YOU memorize for posterity?
People say, "The Bible", "A Christmas Carol" , works by David Sedaris.
Maybe the post apocalyptic world will not be a dystopia, one reader suggests hopefully.
Maybe the dystopia died with the apocalypse.
Now there's a sentence of big words and big ideas!.
And with that...I turned the program over to Nick Szedga who dimmed the lights for the first film clips.
And that is how I spent Sunday afternoon.
Fast forward to Monday morning.
I am at Girya Studio http://giryastrength.com/index.html where I am learning to swing kettlebells.
(A kettlebell is like a cannonball with a handle on it. Check the Web site or Sports Authority orcome visit me if you want to see what one looks like)
I am tired, have not trained at home over the weekend, and want to be at Coupa Cafe having a coffee.
Or absolutely anywhere else.
We are about a half hour into an hour session and Mark Reifkind, my trainer, wants me to begin sixty seconds of kettlebell swings with an 18-pound kettlebell. (This is actually a very light kettlebell in the kettlebell world--but is plenty heavy for me).
I tell him I am exhausted because I led a book discussion on Sunday.
In the kettlebell world, this does not count as an excuse.
"We talked about Fahrenheit 451, " I continue.
Mark says he remembers the book.
"Well then, I've got a question for you," I say, stalling for time.
"Do you know what DYSTOPIA is?"
He pauses. For five whole seconds.
I am counting them--five, four, three, two, one.
I don't have to swing the kettlebell until he gets the answer...or tries to get the answer.
He does. Too quickly.
"It's the opposite of Utopia."
"Tell me more, " I say.
He doesn't fall for the trick.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...