“Fahrenheit 451 – The temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns…”
On Friday night a crowd of people gathered at the end of the library parking lot. As pallets were added to a glowing fire the wind scattered sparks and shouts as marshmallows were drawn back from the flames. Babies bundled in snowsuits, kids in winter hats and gloves. A cross section of Homer gathered around a bonfire and a decades old book.
And what a book.
For the second time in three years, Homer is participating in the Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts that aims to restore reading in American culture. Communities select a work from a list of 33 possible titles, from Tom Sawyer to The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In 2013, Homer chose Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
This year’s book, selected by Friends of the Homer Public Library board members, was written in the basement of a library, on a typewriter rented for 10 cents a half hour.
Ray Bradbury begins his famed work, Fahrenheit 451, with a six-word sentence:
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
What better way to kickoff eight weeks of reading and discussing Bradbury’s futuristic novel than with a bonfire?
The book is told from the perspective of a fireman, Guy Montag. Montag lives in a society where the job of firemen is to burn books, rather than stop fires.
Lila Johnson brought her two young children to the event as a way to show support for the library.
“We just thought it sounded really fun, and just really love the library,” she said.
Ruth Dickerson came in a wheelchair. Her book club is reading the novel — and her grandson wanted to see the fire.
As friends recognize each other, there are exclamations of delight from hooded faces. Shoulders hunch against the wind, pushing glowing smiles closer to the fire.
“With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. … Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flames.”
Instead of books being burned — although a few marshmallows may have been — copies of Fahrenheit 451 were handed out to attendees.
“I think it’s really timely — in an unsettling way,” said Andy Haas, who is the Friends of the Homer Public Library, or FHL, board president.
“My feeling is that our society has chosen to be systematically ignorant — and I don’t know why — and I don’t know how to fix that,” he said.
“’Why aren’t you in school? I see you every day wandering around.”
“Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. “Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?’”
Royce Page, FHL board vice president, said the book was chosen from the list of possible titles because it seemed pertinent to things today. Page, who will be leading a discussion group on the book in March, counted about 50 people at a time circling the fire.
“I think this is a real success,” he said, looking around at the padded figures.
“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
In the audio introduction to his work Bradbury said, “I have written a book about a man falling in love with books. How unusual that is – it’s not a love story on any other level.”
FHL coordinator Erin Hollowell first read the book in eighth or ninth grade. She also taught it as an English teacher in Cordova. She describes Fahrenheit 451 as one of the original “dystopian” novels.
“Dystopia is a vision of the future where everything is bad – it’s the opposite of a utopia,” she said.
“They walked on again in silence and finally she said, thoughtfully, “You know, I’m not afraid of you at all.”
He was surprised. “Why should you be?”
“So many people are. Afraid of firemen, I mean. But you’re just a man, after all….”
When a community is selected to participate in the Big Read they receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to promote and host events around their chosen book. Homer was one of 77 communities nationwide chosen to participate. In the application for the grant, it stipulates that there must be a keynote or capstone speaker during the event, something that Hollowell is particularly excited about.
Inviting Bradbury to Homer was impossible – he died in 2012 – so Hollowell asked his official biographer, Sam Weller, to be the capstone speaker for the Big Read. Weller also will teach a one-day writing class and present at Homer High School.
Although the book itself might seem grim, Bradbury writes it eloquently. Three chapters and 157 pages after it began, Bradbury leaves the reader with a five-word sentence of hope.
Curious? Stop by the library. Copies of the book will be available at the front desk, where they can be picked up by anyone, even those who don’t have a library card, while others will be part of the regular collection to checkout. Two graphic novels and an audio CD version also are available, and the book can be downloaded as a digital audio or eBook through the library’s website, www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/library/big-read-2015.
Visit FHL on Facebook for quotes and discussion questions at www.facebook.com/friendshomerlibrary.
Toni Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.