It was a pleasure to burn." That's the opening line of Ray Bradbury's best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451. No, it has nothing to do with Michael Moore although Moore was clearly alluding to it when he titled his incendiary 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11.
Bradbury's novel is about burning books, the ultimate declaration of culture war by a totalitarian society against its citizens?#34;a timeless warning to all Americans that they need to safeguard their civil liberties against repressive regimes. The publisher issued a 50th anniversary edition in 2003, which may well have given Moore the idea for his film title.
If so, they weren't the only ones inspired by Bradbury. The Oak Park and River Forest public libraries chose the book for their first foray into community-wide literacy promotion?#34;"One Book - Two Villages"?#34;coming in the wake of such public reading ventures as the City of Chicago's "One Book" program and, of course, Oprah's Book Club.
The choice was a natural, say both Debbie Preiser, public information officer for the Oak Park library, and Blaire Valentine, who handles public relations for the River Forest library.
"The issues in the book are so pertinent," said Preiser, referring to the ongoing national discussion of unwarranted surveillance of American citizens and sundry other privacy issues, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, in an increasingly invasive society.
In addition, Bradbury is an Illinois boy, having grown up in Waukegan (as any admirer of his autobiographical Dandelion Wine well knows), and as a writer of science-fiction, he was influenced by Oak Park's own Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Bradbury is also quite devoted to public libraries, Preiser said, since he typed his first book on a pay-by-the-hour typewriter at his local library. In fact, our two libraries got excited about the possibility of featuring Bradbury after witnessing a video conference between biographer Sam Weller (The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury), a professor at Chicago's Columbia College, and the writer from his home in California during last summer's American Library Association convention.
The exchange prompted them to apply to the National Endowment for the Arts, which was offering grants for their "Big Read" initiative (promoting similar community reading projects). Fahrenheit was one of four options to choose from in the NEA program?#34;the other three being F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God (by Zora Neale Hurston), and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
We were not one of the 10 awardees (out of 45 applicants), but the libraries decided to go ahead with the project anyway since they had already established plenty of connections in the process of putting together the application, receiving letters of support from writers such as Alex Kotlowitz and Stephen Kinzer, not to mention the two local fire departments.
Fire departments? Well, if you're familiar with the book, you know the main character is a "fireman." Only in this futuristic, anti-intellectual society, firemen don't put out fires; they start them, using discovered books as the fuel (Fahrenheit 451 being the temperature at which paper burns). He becomes curious about books and is smitten.
The letters of support include the following from River Forest Fire Chief James Eggert:
"When I heard your 'Big Read' project would include the book Fahrenheit 451, I was intrigued. As a firefighter for more than 30 years, to say I read this tome is an understatement. This was required reading for youngsters of that time. I fully support your effort in advancing reading programs in this community and would like to participate by hosting a discussion on Fahrenheit 451 at our fire station. I will promote the project idea among our firefighters and will generate further interest for the discussion."
Oak Park Fire Chief William Bell also read Fahrenheit in high school but wouldn't want to be tested on it. He plans to re-read it before they host a book discussion at the main fire station in April. He's encouraging his firefighters to read the book as well and join in the discussion.
Library staff and the project steering committee are thrilled with such offers of cooperation, of course. The River Forest fire station book discussion is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, March 11 at 2 p.m., 410 Park Ave., facilitated by a River Forest librarian. If you're a slower reader, the main Oak Park fire station, 100 N. Euclid Ave., will host their discussion April 6 at 7 p.m., led by Oak Park librarian Susan Ruffolo.
But more than firemen are interested. "We could fill a room with published writers alone," said Preiser. In fact, they hope to do that on Sunday, March 12, at 2 p.m. in the OPRF High School theater, 201 N. Scoville. Local authors like former N.Y. Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer will read from Bradbury's book and discuss why the themes are still relevant today.
Other events include a lecture and reading by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller (March 16) with taped highlights of last summer's video conference; a screening of the film version of Fahrenheit 451 (no, not Fahrenheit 9/11) for teens at the River Forest library (March 19); the OPRF Debate Team formally debating "Civil Liberties and Censorship," April 20 in the Veterans Room; a tour of the "Bradbury-Burroughs Connection" exhibit at the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest with a panel discussion about Burroughs' influence on Bradbury; a panel discussion on civil liberties, hosted by the League of Women Voters; and a Free Readers Ensemble reading from the book, complete with sound effects at the Oak Park Public Library (May 7). The Lake Theatre also plans a free showing of the film. The Buzz Cafe and Holley Court Terrace will hold book discussions as well. And if you show your Oak Park or River Forest library card, you'll get a 15-percent discount on the book at Barbara's Bookstore during March. The Book Table will have discount copies available too.
Preiser and Valentine say they're talking with Dominican University about a lecture/discussion on the subject of "Religion vs. Science-Fiction."
"This is the first time the two libraries have collaborated on anything this big," Preiser said, and they're hoping Oak Parkers will come to River Forest events and vice versa.
"It's a great chance for Oak Park and River Forest to interact," said Valentine.
The River Forest library purchased 40 copies of the book, which are intended to be taken by patrons and passed on to their friends. The library doesn't want them returned. In fact, a label on the inside cover reads: "Take this, read it, pass it on." In addition, Valentine said, the library's two in-house book groups are currently reading Fahrenheit.
Preiser said the Oak Park Public Library has 50 copies on order, but they'll be checking them out like all the other books.
Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest is sending ads about the event in their monthly statements, and the two libraries are producing brochures and bookmarks promoting the events. The Friends of the Oak Park Public Library are providing financial assistance.
For more information about the project, call the Oak Park Public Library at 697-6915 or the River Forest Public Library at 366-5205 or check the library websites: www.oppl.org or www.riverforestlibrary.org for schedules of the upcoming events.
'A pleasure to burn'
"It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. 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. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up on sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."