Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ignorance and Fire

My Dear Reader,

Last week I talked to you about my self-imposed challenge of reading ten classics in 2013.

I'm pleased to say that as of March, I've read The Hobbit, Fahrenheit 451, and Catcher in the Rye. Not bad, if I say so myself.

These three books were each important to me because, for various reasons, they were books I'd given up on as a teenager. I feel especially bad about Fahrenheit 451 because it's a dystopian novel, my absolute favorite genre. I tried reading it in high school and quit about two chapters in, probably because I didn't get Ray Bradbury's style. I also tried reading some of his other works (I was determined to be a fan of his at that age), and it just didn't appeal to me. I don't know what's changed between then and now, but I just loved reading it this time around.

Fahrenheit 451 is about a dark future in which all books are banned. Firemen, instead of putting fires out, are now in charge of burning books.

So it's pretty natural to think that the book is about censorship, and on a surface level, it is. But the deeper I went, the more I started to realize that it's not really about censorship as much as it's about how intellectual laziness leads to anti-intellectualism. That's a pretty powerful subject.

As I read, I came across this quote: "If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn."

And I thought that quote pretty much sums up my high school experience.

The teenage years are pretty confusing for everybody, mostly because your intelligence has finally risen to a level where you start to realize that the world around you isn't as perfect as you once thought it was. At the same time, however, you are not yet intelligent or experienced enough to know what to do about it. In most cases, this creates a lot of angsty whining. I wish I could say that I was above all of that, but then my pants might combust. 

So yeah, I was a pretty annoying teenager. And I was also pretty vocal.

Did you want to know any of my ideas on culture, religion, or politics? You barely had to ask. Did you want to know what was wrong with anything within my field of vision? You probably didn't, but I told you anyway. I usually managed to be nicer about it than I felt like being, but let's just say that it was easy to lose patience with me in a very short amount of time.

And you know what? A lot of people were pretty honest right back. A lot of people challenged everything I thought and believed. And they weren't always nice about it. And at a very vulnerable and confusing time in my life, it really, really hurt.

But the more I was challenged, the more I had to find a way to counter their arguments.

And the more I had to counter an argument, the more I had to think.

And the more I thought, the more I learned (by trial and error) how to separate what was actually true from what I wanted to be true.

And the more I figured out what was actually true, the more I learned that even though the world was imperfect, I had the opportunity to become a better person and make my world at least bearable.

So, to summarize: I showed my ignorance, I got hit, and I learned.

And what's so great about Fahrenheit 451 is that it shows you what happens when people hide their ignorance. It shows a culture where people want to look intelligent instead of be intelligent. So they read the CliffsNotes and say they read the whole thing. And then they get this weird but common idea that there is too much to read and learn, and it's not worth the trouble. They don't want to be challenged. They want to be entertained.

So they dumb down everything in their life until they are living on an intellectual diet analogous to Twinkies and Oreos.

And when everyone is like that, you know who the greatest threat is? Someone who reads.

That's why they have to burn the books. The best way to hide your ignorance is to surround yourself with people as ignorant as you are.

The really scary thing about all of this is how true it is, and how much I see it around me. What's terrifying is how much I see it in myself. There are days and sometimes weeks when all I ask of the world is to distract me enough so I don't have to think. Maybe it's not so bad once in a while. But on a regular basis? Well, then, it seems to me like I have a choice between burning my ignorance or burning my chance at becoming better.

Either way, there is going to be fire. I just have to choose where to direct it.

So yes, I did give up on reading a book at the same time in which I was essentially living its main conflict. Irony gets you every time. In the end, though, I'm not sure if Teenage Cecily would have benefited as much from the ideas in Fahrenheit 451 as much as I (Present Cecily) did. I think that as an adult, when it is a lot easier to hide my ignorance if I so choose, it is all the more important for me to remember the danger of intellectual laziness.

Of course, I have seven more classics to read, so my brain doesn't really have time for loafing.

Regards, best wishes, and the courage to be ignorant,

-Cecily Jane

1 comment:

Liz-a-nator said...

OHMYGOODNESS this was awesome! I feel both humbled and inspired! I am both guilty and hopeful!

Way to freaking THINK, man.

I dig this.