The Paradox of Literacy: Censorship in Fahrenheit 451 and Our World Today | Teen Ink

The Paradox of Literacy: Censorship in Fahrenheit 451 and Our World Today

May 27, 2022
By megan_y GOLD, Cupertino, California
megan_y GOLD, Cupertino, California
12 articles 9 photos 6 comments

In Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, the dysfunctional society that the reader encounters is built off of its citizens’ lack of literacy. Although Bradbury’s work is purely speculative, the phenomenon of shallow literacy and censorship is no stranger to world history. Whether it was Qin Shihuang in ancient China or Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, societies have often felt compelled to limit or even destroy their citizens’ access to literature. In the modern period, however, global literacy rates are at their highest in world history. Although we live in a fortunate time in terms of literacy rates, the timing of Bradbury’s novel would suggest that the threat of censorship lurks behind even the most advanced of civilizations. Furthermore, the legacy of literacy is complex on both a factual and moral level. History has seen episodes of increased literacy, as well as episodes of barbarism and censorship, but deep literacy tends to be more difficult to correlate simply with general.

However, literacy as a whole is much more than what meets the eye. There are two types; basic literacy and comprehensive literacy. The former is nothing more than the ability to read and write, and is usually what people associate with literacy. On the other hand, comprehensive literacy is much deeper and more complex. As its name suggests, this type of literacy is being able to understand and comprehend what words mean instead of just reading them at their surface level. Basic literacy is a lot more achievable than comprehensive literacy. In Fahrenheit 451, all the characters are able to read, but almost none of them can really interpret. When Mildred invites her friends over to her house, Montag starts to read a poem to them. “Then he began to read in a low, stumbling voice that grew firmer as he progressed from line to line…” (Bradbury 102). The fact that Montag was able to read a poem fluently means that while he may not understand the meaning, he has no trouble reading out the words. This ability can be seen in many people in both the past and the present. The reason both people in Fahrenheit 451 and people in our society today are still able to read and write is because literacy and communication skills (which are derived from literacy) are necessary in nearly every single occupation. 

While literacy rates are higher than ever before, certain societies in history were against their citizens learning how to read and write. Some ways they prevented literacy was by creating anti-literacy laws and burning books. While the United States is currently the 7th most literate country in the world, it’s the only country known to have had anti-literacy laws. They were created in the 19th century to prevent enslaved people from becoming literate. Another example was in 212 BCE, after Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang united China. Because China used to be split into smaller provinces, they had different beliefs and perspectives on historical events, so Qin Shi Huang tried to burn all of their books. This way, his legacy wouldn’t be threatened. Both of these instances had the same motive behind them; without deeper knowledge, citizens wouldn’t feel compelled to question authority or rebel. 

This is the same reason why books are banned in Fahrenheit 451. While everyone was still able to read and write on a basic level, they weren’t able to do any deeper level thinking. This ban was purposely made to keep the citizens under control. Without comprehension and analytical skills that usually come from reading a lot of books, the citizens in their society don’t question their authority. They don’t think about how unfair the lack of books is simply because they aren’t mentally able to. Even though it seems like there’s no upside for the people in their world, the novel suggests otherwise. Faber states that books show the negative sides of life. “They [books] show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, pore less, hairless, expressionless.” (Bradbury 79) Therefore, if books get taken away, then the citizens in their society wouldn’t be thinking about all the bad aspects of their world and would live happily. 

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates the conflict surrounding literacy that has always been a recurring dispute. However, even though their society burns books, it doesn’t make the characters completely illiterate since they’re still able to read and write on a basic level. While the environment of the book seems extremely dystopian, it’s quite the opposite for the citizens. Even though they’re deprived of the ability to think for themselves, this ignorance allows them to be completely content since their society tells them to be. In their world, ignorance is bliss. 



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