Pondered this question since watching the movie Fahrenheit a course in miracles book. The film is based on Ray Bradbury’s novella of the same name (the title refers to the temperature at which book paper ignites when exposed to heat) and it depicts a future where reading is lethal – literally.
The world is on the verge of nuclear war and its human inhabitants, oblivious of the unfolding mayhem, are pacified with state-sanctioned drugs and mind-numbing entertainment.
Anyone found with a book is burned – along with it – by a squad of “firemen”, one of whom begins to harbor doubts about his profession after meeting a young girl who is more alive and vibrant than everyone else. She inspires him to question a society that bans reading and keeps its citizens ignorant and docile.
He becomes a fugitive after saving a book from destruction and his wife betrays him to the authorities. He flees the city shortly before it’s bombed and heads for the forest where he’s heard a small resistance movement lives.
When he finds them, he learns they have memorized – word for word – their favourite book and they keep each volume alive because they recite its contents to one another every day. The idea is that, eventually, books will be valued again and the exiles will be free to transcribe their contents.
Years ago, I tutored students in spelling and grammar. After recounting Bradbury’s story, I’d ask them what book they’d save for future generations and this exercise became the basis for most of their literacy work. Each student enjoyed memorizing a beloved book and, in the process, their spelling, grammar and comprehension improved dramatically.
This is because I would have them learn each sentence with meticulous attention to correct spelling and punctuation, as they would have to transcribe it for homework (without looking at the book) exactly as written. If they complained, I would tell them their descendants would be short-changed if they inherited second-rate copies of the original. The protests would stop instantly.
I mention my tutoring experience with Fahrenheit 451 because there’s something powerful about Bradbury’s story. It resonates with me, as it did with my young students, and perhaps with good reason. Who knows what the next few decades will bring? especially if the human tendency to fanaticism is reinforced by the stress of climate change, overpopulation and environmental degradation. Books – quickly destroyed and forgotten – are an easy target for oppressive governments and their absence allows ignorance to thrive.
So, what book would you risk your life for? What book speaks to you so strongly that you would memorize its contents for future generations? What really matters to you? Is it prose or poetry? If so, would it be the work of a single poet or an anthology of different poets? Is it a fiction or a non-fiction book? Is it practical or humorous? Romantic or scientific?
In my case, I’m sticking with something timeless. In fact, I’ve already started.
The book I’d choose to save is Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. It has a bit of everything: humor, wisdom, practicality and idealism. It’s also easy to learn and I never tire of reciting parts of it each day.