Recently, a book club associated with BWP read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. While I had overall mixed feelings about the book (the summary: it was a bit too academic and philosophical, and not enough plot for my taste), one thing did strike me and remind me of one of my favorite books of all time. Shevek, our protagonist and genius physicist, happens upon a tidbit of knowledge (in this case, learning the language spoken on a different planet) that flips his life upside-down. This situation reminded me heavily of Montag in Fahrenheit 451, who has a random urge to take a book home with him, and discovers a universe of knowledge and an intellectual revolution. In this post, I’ll talk about how reading and learning new things can change your life forever.
(This post contains spoilers for the above books.)
Shevek is a physicist, and he was pretty satisfied with his lot on Anarres, a planet with a ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ society. He taught classes and volunteered for shifts doing manual labor, as any good neighbor in this culture would do. However, he found that his physics research were getting a little too advanced and not many on Anarres could understand it. His mentor suggested that he learn Iotic, the language spoken on Urras, a nearby capitalist planet, in order to read physics texts from other worlds. He did so, and opened a can of worms: he and his friends were then able to communicate with Urras, exchange ideas, and eventually even visit Urras. He became more hated among his neighbors (and in this world, that’s all that matters, since there is no police to stop your neighbors from hurting you) and seen as a ‘traitor’ for discussing physics with the enemy. Had the mentor simply said, “tough luck, your physics is too advanced, better go back to the farm,” the book would have been very different.
In much the same way, Montag’s discovery of books and reading upends his life. He is a firefighter whose job it is to burn books (which are considered dangerous propaganda) and at first he is satisfied with this. He goes home to his wife and watches their wall-sized televisions, and thinks the neighbor girl is strange for questioning the status quo. However, one day on the job, Montag steals a book instead of burning it, and everything changes. His wife disapproves of this blatant lawbreaking and reports him. Montag ends up on the run, using his bits of memorized novels as currency among an exiled group of retired teachers and hoping to rebuild the world as one that values knowledge. (Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 has been banned or censored in some school districts… making its message that much more important.)
Clearly, a little bit of curiosity goes a long way.
While The Dispossessed has been called a Utopian society and Fahrenheit 451 a Dystopia, they share a lot of attitudes: people are meant to be happy with their lot in life, do their job, and not ask questions. (Well, to be fair, people on Anarres ask a lot of questions, but those who don’t play by the rules are ‘voluntarily posted to’ an Asylum so they don’t get beaten up by their neighbors. In 451, the neighbor girl who questions things simply disappears.) While Shevek is an advanced physicist and Montag merely a guy who reads a book, I would love to read a conversation between the two. Neither shows signs of regret: Shevek accepts his path with a singlemindedness you’d expect from someone raised and trained to avoid ego and material possessions, and Montag is actually relieved to leave his wife and job behind. These two men inspire readers to question norms, talk to strangers, and the most dangerous thing of all… read books.
Armed with our bookshelves, ebook readers, and audiobook players, Backroom Whispering Productions is very excited to introduce a month of blog posts about books that have been frequently banned or challenged. Since knowledge and curiosity are dangerous, your local library is a minefield and a book might change your life. Some groups feel that people shouldn’t have access to certain books, so they petition for libraries or schools to ban these books. The American Library Association (ALA) celebrates Banned Books Week the last week of September, but we feel so strongly about various banned or challenged books, we want to celebrate all month long! Check our site and social media for a new post each Friday discussing our favorites.
Cover image copyright Ray Bradbury and Ballentine Books
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