Walking is a revolutionary act

It seems that not even a poster campaign featuring rappers, basketball players, and cartoon characters can provide the encouragement needed to incite young people to read today. In spite of L.L. Cool J’s best efforts, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores revealed that a shocking 60% of 4th graders scored below their grade level in reading. One recent poll found that almost half of American teenagers read other than assigned school reading less than twice a year. Perhaps the problem is larger and runs deeper than a celebrity can solve by having his picture taken with an open book. Perhaps, indeed, those celebrities are part of the problem. Reading is not declining because schools are worsening, though they are, nor because children cannot relate to the books available to them, as those who have made a bad situation worse sometimes assert. Instead, the problem is, ultimately, at the root of modern society.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” envisions a dystopian future in which taking an evening stroll is a crime. Instead, people are expected to rush to work in the morning, rush back home after the end of the work day, and spend their evenings in the glow of their television sets. While it is, as of 15 November 2014, still legal, to a limited extent, to take an evening stroll, the dystopian future Bradbury envisions is not too far distant from reality. According to a recent report by Nielsen, the average American spends a stunning five hours a day watching television. Americans, it seems, are just too busy to read a good book. They are busy watching the celebrities who pretended to read for a photograph encouraging children to read.

One recent study concluded that living in a household with a 500-book library accelerated the reading levels of children by an average of 3.2 years. Given that a book can be purchased for less than a dollar at most thrift stores, a 500-book library is surely as affordable as a new television. Yet almost every American home has a television, but not a 500-book library. In fact, almost none of the families Americans watch on television have 500-book libraries either.

The problem is quite clear. We live in a society that has developed a disdain for reading. We live increasingly busy and technologized lives. When we return home from the ratrace, we park ourselves in front of the television. Rather than taking a walk, we sit on the couch. Rather than having a lively family dinner discussion, almost half of American children eat dinner in front of the television. A society without home libraries, evening strolls, family discussions, and the sacredness of a communal meal is not a society conducive to the life of the mind. It is a society which has, through more if not through legal fiat, become the dystopia Bradbury imagined.

The helplessness and hopelessness invoked by Bradbury’s story is sure to bite into anyone who laments the loss of the very essence of humanity in the acts of reading, discussing, walking, and eating. This is especially true as there is no easy solution. There is no new curriculum proposed by any particular politician nor any photograph of a celebrity that will solve this problem. There is only the radical countercultural act of taking an evening stroll.

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The world that Bradbury envisions here is commonly called a “dystopia.” It is usually seen as a plausible, though exaggerated, warning of a possible and terrible future. I disagree, however, with this common understanding of this novel. On the contrary, what Bradbury provides the reader with here is not a distant dystopian future; it is an allegorical representation of our present. We live in the world of Fahrenheit 451.

While there are no firemen running from house to house to burn our books, the average American household has already done the job for them by refusing to house books in the first place. While front porches are not banned, as in this novel, we have done that job too by severing ourselves from our communities and our families and the dialogue such relationship must inevitably produce. We refuse to talk about great things, even about common things like meaning and death. Instead, just as do the people in the novel, we drown out the sound of our own thoughts with televisions, computers, and iPads. Rather than feel our suffering and get to know ourselves as we really are, we numb ourselves with medications.

Unfortunately, Bradbury has no solution to offer to the predicament we have gotten ourselves into other than to allow it to run its course and, as will inevitably happen, to self-destruct. Equally unfortunately, there is probably indeed no other solution than this. Meanwhile, us “book people” must remain at the fringes, quietly imbibing the great truths of the past and waiting for the day when civilization will call upon us to rebuild itself.

Review: Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dandelion Wine is a wonderful mixture of memoir and science fiction. Bradbury brings these two elements together and creates a wonderful novel from them, one fit to be read slowly and ingested entirely. Through the story of two young boys, brothers, and their Summer of 1928, Bradbury creates a series of reflections on the nature of time and change. The attentive reader will enjoy the food for philosophical reflection scattered throughout and will end with a deeper conviction to enjoy life, however brief and fleeting it may be, to the fullest. I recommend this book for all readers.

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When God became an atheist

Early in Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, Douglas, the 12-year-old central protagonist of the novel, has an experience in which for the first time in his short life he realized the beauty and significance of his own existence in a profoundly and deeply felt way. So feeling, he thinks to himself, “I’m really alive! … I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!” The novel that follows a series of events which occur around and to Douglas during the Summer of 1928. These events lead to Douglas’s realization near the end of the novel that someday his life, which he only so recently learned to fully appreciate, will eventually end. Young Douglas struggles to accept this newfound knowledge of his own mortality, finally even becoming so ill as to be dangerously close to death. Upon emerging from this sickness, he wanders into his grandmother’s kitchen pantry where he discovers a jar labelled only “RELISH.” When he discovers this jar, he feels suddenly “glad he had decided to live” through his illness. He decides at this to relish the many joys of life while accepting the inevitability of its end.

The story that is told here is another version of the only story ever told. It is the story in which the protagonist “dies” (or undergoes extreme hardship nearing death) and is revivified to a more complete life or otherwise grows in an important way in the end. This story is, of course, best told in the biblical account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. This biblical telling is also unique in an important way, namely, that the protagonist who undergoes the process is not a human being in the usual sense but is, rather, God-become-man. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out:

Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.

In the recapitulative work of Christ, the redemption-narrative of death and rebirth is itself redeemed and sanctified. It is then set forth as the archetype to which others must adhere. Without the crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, there is and can be no Easter resurrection and Paschal joy. The narrative repeats itself throughout the Christian life, such as in the rite of baptism in which “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, KJV). It, in fact, defines, the Christian life as a whole, which is a process of dying to one’s self and sin in order to live a life in Christ, who is the fullness of life.

I cannot remember the first time I experienced a recognition of my own mortality. I believe it was probably a gradual process, as it must be with most people. I can, however, remember the first time that the full meaning and inevitability of my own death came to me. It was the first time that I celebrated Easter as a Christian. Growing up in a non-religious household, throughout my childhood Easter had meant nothing more than a few extra days off from school and a basketful of candy on Sunday morning. As a result, I entered into my first Holy Week expecting very little. What I found, however, was an experience through which I came to understand myself better than I had at any point previously in my life. In contemplating the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, I found a God who is, as Chesterton once described him, the “only … divinity who ever uttered … isolation,” the only “God [who] seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” In other words, I found a God who became as I had been. As the journey continued, however, and I shared for the first time in the joyful proclamation of the risen Lord on Easter Sunday morning, I found a man who had become as I desired to become.

Through contemplating and, in a sense, experiencing the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord, I came to understand more truly than ever before the inevitability of my own death and to place my hope more fervently than ever before in the resurrection to come. It is only through coming to terms with my death and placing my hopes in this resurrection that I began to approach the state which Douglas had found after his sickness, an experience of the joy of being and the desire to relish each moment of life.

The little things

‘That’s the trouble with your generation,’ said Grandpa. ‘Bill, I’m ashamed of you, you a newspaperman. All the things in life that were put here to savor, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say. … Bill, when you’re my age, you’ll find out it’s the little savors and little things that count more than the big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find. I know — you’re after the broad effect now, and I suppose that’s fit and proper. But for a young man working on a newspaper, you got to look for grapes as well as watermelons. You greatly admire skeletons and I like fingerprints; well and good. Right now such things are bothersome to you, and I wonder if it isn’t because you’ve never learned to use them. If you had your way you’d pass a law to abolish all the little jobs, the little things. But then you’d leave yourselves nothing to do between the big jobs and you’d have a devil of a time thinking up things to do so you wouldn’t go crazy. Instead of that, why not let nature show you a few things? Cutting grass and pulling weeds can be a way of life, son.’ 

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, p. 64