In this fourth installment of our Letters About Literature series, we highlight the Level 2 (grades 7-8) National Honor Winner Jane Wang of Chandler, Ariz., who wrote to Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451.”
Dear Ray Bradbury,
“Fahrenheit 451 the temperature at which books burn.” A title that would kindle any curious eighth grader’s interest. Its simplistic, plain back cover showed only a small picture of an ancient, smoldering tome to hint at the plot. It bore the distinct appearance of being one of those antiquated, perplexing novels with a profound theme that would probably make my language arts teacher grow all warm and fuzzy inside but leave my head pounding. But your book was so much more than even that. It was a story of ignorance and knowledge, illusions and reality, misery and happiness. It was a story that changed my perspective of something that had once troubled me very much.
Controversy and debate; I have never liked either of them. It was previously my belief that they had only ever been a nuisance to me and overcomplicated my life. You see, I am a naturally cautious person. I do not enjoy taking risks, and I hate having to make decisions or pick sides for fear that I will regret it later. It has always been a huge burden to me and in my mind; I used to tentatively entertain the notion of a much easier life where only one opinion, one belief, and one answer existed for everything. There would be no more test questions asking “why,” no more arguments with Mom about possibilities for the future, no more discord between countries regarding controversial government programs or questionable laws. After all the absence of furious debates and nasty disputes should lead to a happier, more peaceful, and ultimately better world, right? Wrong. Your novel showed me just how wrong I was.
“Fahrenheit 451” told the tale of a world where the controversy and debate that had troubled me so much did not exist. But I quickly realized that your book did not tell a happy story. That controversy and debate had been eliminated at the cost of something much more important: free, individual thought. Montag’s wife, Mildred, and the rest of her friends cared about nothing more than their own immediate pleasures. Anything that required even the slightest bit of time or concentration was believed to interfere with the advanced technology, loud music, and fast cars they enjoyed in their fast-paced lives. Literature, self-reflection, and even the simple act of thinking had no place in their world, though they play important roles in mine. I read to learn and grow. I reflect to make myself a better person. And thinking, wondering about the ways of the world as Clarisse did, is something I take for granted. The books that Beatty, Montag, and the rest of the firemen sought to burn have shaped me into who I am today. All my life, I have surrounded myself with books to promote my learning and knowledge of the world; I would be miserable without them. Montag and many others in your novel never had that opportunity to experience such a form of genuine happiness. They never had the chance to spend that time on their own simply sitting in a rocking chair at their own front porch and quietly reflecting. And without that special moment to think and wonder, Montag and everyone else’s mind slowly faded away as they were continually stifled and restrained, their individual thoughts and ideas burned away with books they couldn’t even remember. No wonder all that controversy and debate disappeared; how could there have been any argument regarding any matter if no one knew of any problems to discuss?
Your novel did not change me in a particularly noticeable way. I did not take on a radical new personality or come to any unexpected epiphanies. My peers and others around me still saw the same careful, perfectionist girl they had known before. But underneath all the layers of invisible yellow caution tape that I had wrapped myself up in was a girl with a new perspective. Suddenly, the words controversy and debate did not seem like the very nemeses of my cautious nature. What was once a burden now seems like a wonderful gift to be cherished. “Fahrenheit 451” showed me what a life without argument would entail. Your novel allowed me to understand that where there are no disagreements, there are no personal opinions, and where there are no personal opinions, there are no individual thoughts.
Furthermore, I realized after reading your book that the events in your novel were not all fictional. Censorship exists in today’s society just as it did in the world of “Fahrenheit 451”; burning books is just a rather extreme version of it. I recognize the fact that there are people who live in places very similar to Montag’s world, where individual thoughts that don’t align with the purported ideals are forbidden. I know now that I am very fortunate to be able to experience the occasional disagreement, because controversy and debate are proof that my thoughts are well and truly my own.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for writing “the novel of firemen who are paid to set books ablaze.”
Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives, announced its 2014 winners in June. More than 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative, a reading-promotion program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
National and honor winners were chosen from three competition levels: Level 1 (grades 4-6), Level 2 (grades 7-8) and Level 3 (grades 9-12). You can read the letters from the Level 1 winners here and here and the Level 2 National Winner here. In addition, winning letters from previous years are available to read online.