” ‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’ ”Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
What books do you hold?
If Fahrenheit 451 became real, what words would refuse to die? What pages would haunt your brain, what authors would take on your breath as their own?
We each have our stash, our literary bug-out bag. I confess I am no help to the broader movement. Fragments are all I hold. “The night Max wore his wolf suit...”; “Because I could not stop for Death;” “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like…”
What if these words were cut off from the root-stock of their written form? If sometime after an apocalypse you are coaxing a restless child with a story, and memory prompts you to say –
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit –”
How on earth do you continue when Tolkien isn’t on the shelf?
Not a nasty, dark, wet hole; nor yet a dry sandy hole. A beautiful hole, with a round green door and a yellow brass door knob, right in the center. And the hobbit was sitting outside his door-hole, enjoying a beautiful morning and a beautiful pipe – his two favorite things in the world – when along came – a wizard! But this hobbit didn’t yet know it was a wizard. In fact, there were quite a lot of things this hobbit didn’t know – yet!
(I clearly have no experience with either children’s attention span or oral literature – which is to say, my apologies, Mr. Tolkien, for the rough paraphrase. There’s a reason people still read The Hobbit rather than retell it from scratch.)
But back to Fahrenheit 451. Of all the questions that book raises, one holds my mind. I’ve always wondered, secretly, how the books were changed by their human hosts.
I know I don’t remember things without changing them. As example, consider a snatch of verse I picked up as a child. My memory says: “…I went down to the depths of mountains, the earth with her bars was about me forever.” A strong image, dramatic and visceral. Even without context, you can feel the pull of a story waiting to take over.
Except now I can’t find any translation that uses “depths.” Perhaps I was already developing an interest in editing; in my opinion, none of the other available translations1 have the same power, the same draw, nor the physical sense of immensity conveyed by use of the word “depths.” Nonetheless, it is not true to any of the originals.
So already, my library for a new world is flawed or changed. But is this the [t]error it seems?
The written word imposes a kind of stasis. It is labored over, refined, perfected: that is one story of its existence.
Other versions of that story may have different truths to share. The written word may be a hybrid, a creature sterile and solitary in its never-again nature. The written word may be a vision unto its time. It may be a reflection of the mind that made it, a reflection of the ones who read it, a refraction of all the words before and after which pour into it, hourglass-like.
It may be, simply, The Word. Any which way you write it, speak it, know it or say it, it breathes something that can’t be contained. It always seeks to escape and reshape. It burns away boundaries and fans the flames.
And if it isn’t some pseudo-mythical or quasi-mystical beast, then it emerges from human minds – and minds change. Even as the words stay the same, our understanding of them is a moving target; just look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Othello, or any religious text you care to mention.
I do not want books to burn. I love my library, and I love the minds I will never know nor fathom. But I also sacrifice words daily, in the conflagration of my limited understanding and pressing necessity. So search for the words that are brave enough to survive, and inevitable enough to re-emerge no matter what.
I ask again: what books do you hold? Search for them, face them, don’t forget. And don’t forget, also, an act of survival: look beyond memory. Don’t be surprised if the words re-emerge in a way that changes you, changes them, and forever re-shapes the world in their wake.
Seriously, share what books you hold. Also, reader points awarded for those who can pinpoint the quotes.
1 Jonah 2:6, King James Version: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever; yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, oh Lord my God.” Other translations seem to use “roots,” “bases,” or “cuttings.”