SF L&Cs: The Danger of Books

Today the Bay Area cousins had a mid-afternoon “pie party” at one of their places in Foster City along the canal. An occasion to bring left-over pies from Thanksgiving? No; everyone brought fresh, even home-made pies, and other food as well, like dim sum. And there are currently about six infants and toddlers, from age 1 to 6, running about at such events.


Today’s link is new since I mentioned three SF-related links yesterday; I just saw it this morning. It’s about book suppression, and it recalls for me works by Ray Bradbury and Orson Scott Card.

Washington Post, Alexandra Petri, 26 Nov 2021: Opinion: Take all books off the shelves. They’re just too dangerous.

This is satire; you can tell by the word in the URL. This is a follow-up to the stories a week or two ago about school boards, in Virginia and elsewhere, perusing huge lists of books they suspected were unfit for their children, books virtually all by writers of color or about LGBTQ matters.

Today’s commentator writes,

I regret to say they are putting the books back on the shelves now in Virginia, the threatened books, the banned ones. They have evaluated them and found them to contain no threat. (Reports of their containing pornography were greatly exaggerated, or perhaps adjudicators were simply not flipping fast enough.)

This is no good. Such books are bad. Maybe all books are bad, not just the challenged ones. Books follow you home and pry open your head and rearrange the things inside. They make you feel things, sometimes, hope and grief and shame and confusion; they tell you that you’re not alone, or that you are, that you shouldn’t feel ashamed, or that you should; replace your answers with questions or questions with answers. This feels dangerous to do, a strange operation to perform on yourself, especially late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping.

They are an insidious and deadly poison. Years after you read them, they come back and bother you late at night. They clang around inside your skull. They make strange things familiar to you and familiar things strange again. They have no respect for the boundaries of your dreams. They put turns of phrase into your gut where you digest them slowly and regurgitate them where they are least expected.

And she goes on about the various specific danger of books, especially their emotional effects.

The SF angle is obvious: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, about a future society where “firemen” don’t put our fires, but begin fires with caches of forbidden books. (The matter of why society would ban books, or why Bradbury wrote about the idea, is another matter.)

The fire captain in the book, Beatty, makes a very similar argument about the danger of books. They say nothing, he claims.

Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.

Yes, life is difficult; so much easier to buy into a single incontrovertible truth and suppress any possible alternatives…


At the same time… I had this thought when I discussed the book suppression in those state a few weeks ago. Could there be a rationale for denying a child exposure to any books, aside from conservative panic and alarm? Or for that matter, art and music?

If I recall correctly, early in Orson Scott Card’s career he wrote a story called “Unaccompanied Sonata,” about precisely this idea. You prevent a child, in his case a musical prodigy, from influences so he might grow up and develop entirely on his own, without any kind of influences. The Wikipedia summary seems to confirm my recollection. But I will reread the story eventually.

There’s a certain attraction to the idea. If you deny a child religious inculcation, for example, then at age 20 reveal to him the many varieties of religion and supernatural belief, what would he conclude…? I doubt Card, a devout Mormon, considered the idea this far. Certainly the same notion could extend to musical and literary exposure. Have certain possible pathways in those arts been shut off by the pathways that have been taken, and that therefore forever influence new generations of musicians and authors?

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