Lighting a Spark with Fahrenheit 451

With the 2012 passing of American novelist Ray Bradbury and the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 in 2013, the time was right to return to his most famous work and use it as a starting point to discuss society, technology, and censorship, just as Bradbury would have us do. It was fortunate that so many others were thinking along the same lines as Mary Chapin Durling, director of Fitchburg State’s CenterStage and catalyst in the development of Fitchburg State University’s multi-faceted Fahrenheit 451 project.

This confluence of willing and active participants, including members of Fitchburg State University’s faculty, librarians, and students, the Fitchburg Public Library, the Fitchburg Historical Society, the Fitchburg Art Museum, the Fitchburg Cultural Alliance working through Rollstone Studios, other local arts organizations, artists, and concerned citizens, enabled the Fahrenheit 451 Community Read project to reach out into every part of the community and bring together over 1,400 people and counting at one and often many more of the project’s nineteen events. How did this ambitious, multi-faceted project come about and what insights have been learned through its execution?

The entire thing began with a conversation between Mary Chapin Durling and a booking agent about the New York based Aquila Theater Company and their plans for a national tour of Bradbury’s own play based on the novel. The play was ideal for inclusion in the 2013-2014 cultural events program at Fitchburg State, but from the very beginning Mary wanted to make the event an opportunity to draw in the schools and the community at-large to engage with the issues raised by the story in a more meaningful way.

When Aquila agreed to provide a special daytime performance for students from Fitchburg and surrounding communities, Mary set to work reaching out to her network of community collaborators, inviting each to take part and approach the story from their unique perspectives. These partners responded, offering their time, expertise, and venues all over the Fitchburg area to host events connected to the Fahrenheit 451 story and its themes.

Mary served as project manager, marshaling the university’s resources to write grants connected to the project which secured the funding that, among other things, paid for seven hundred students to see the play. I was invited to participate in the project as Humanities Scholar, since my scholarly work and study has focused on the history of book burning and censorship. It was also in this way that a sizable Mass Humanities grant was acquired that supported embedding the project into the local curriculum, since the Fahrenheit 451 story is featured in the Common Core (MA state curriculum standards). Funds went to purchase countless copies of the novel, play, and graphic novel that were distributed to students and available at events, enabling anyone who was interested access to the story and opportunities to learn more and let to their voices be heard.

Over the past month, there have been more than a dozen events intersecting with Bradbury’s story. A staged reading of the play was directed and performed by volunteers from the Fitchburg theatrical community on Saturday, September 14th, at the public library. Book discussions of Bradbury’s novel, moderated by librarians and faculty from Fitchburg State, including myself, and librarians from the Fitchburg Public Library, have been held periodically in the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library on the Fitchburg State campus and in Fitchburg’s public library. The 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 by François Truffaut was also screened at both locations, and both were followed by public discussions. Each Thursday since September 19th, read-aloud events have been held at the public library in which members of the community have read aloud from Bradbury’s novel to commemorate the story and further spread its message. With the cooperation of Fitchburg Access Television (FATV), these read-aloud events have even been recorded and rebroadcasted on local public-access television.

On September 24th, Aquila Theater staged its riveting performances in the day and evening, and there was a pre-performance spotlight talk where members of the company and I discussed the story on stage and answered questions from the audience prior to the evening show. On the following day I presented a public lecture examining the ancient history and contemporary reality of censorship and book burning at the Fitchburg Historical Society. This event, like many others in the series, was free and open to the public. Since then, book club discussions at the public library and altered book workshops at the Fitchburg Art Museum and Rollstone Studios, offered by local artists and educators, have sustained the project’s momentum, giving participants the opportunity to work with and think about books and writing in different ways.

From the many people I have spoken with at the events, I can say that participants have been struck by many different aspects of Bradbury’s story. Many found his dystopian fantasy to be an eerily prescient depiction of a reality that is much more like our own than that of the 1950s when it was written, a realization that was both troubling and cause for introspection. Again and again, the conversations have turned to contemporary manifestations of the issues involved, such as censorship of the internet and social media in the United States and abroad, on-line surveillance by governments and the secret collection of data, recent examples of the suppression of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press by book burning and other means, and other topics.

Likewise, others found in the depictions of the mass media in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and a society adrift amid meaningless diversions a vision of a world hauntingly reminiscent of our own, with its reality television, Facebook, and so-called iPad addiction. The different and repeated presentations of the story, it is clear, gave participants multiple avenues of entry into the story and the various opportunities to discuss the topics and ask questions enabled them to begin to become better informed and to share their own insights and experiences.

With so many events already completed, the Fahrenheit 451 project will conclude this week with some of the best events yet:

Wednesday, October 16th: a roundtable discussion on censorship and the freedom of speech will be held at Fitchburg’s Historical Society at 7 p.m., featuring Charles St. Amand, Editor of Fitchburg’s Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper, Andre Ravenelle, Superintendent of Fitchburg City Schools, and President Robert V. Antonucci of Fitchburg State.

Thursday, October 17th: there will be a screening of the 1956 film Storm Center, featuring Bette Davis as a librarian who defiantly refuses to remove a controversial book from her library. This event will be held at the public library at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion about the film.

The final events will occur on Saturday, October 19th, when a progressive art exhibition will take place beginning at 11 a.m. at the Fitchburg Art Museum, proceeding to the Fitchburg Historical Society at noon, and arriving at Rollstone Studios at 1 p.m. At each location, works of art produced at the project’s events and exhibitions related to the issues that have been raised in the series will be on display. A final discussion, drawing on all of the events and the issues raised in the conversations that have taken place will begin at 2 p.m. at the Fitchburg Public Library with Mary Chapin Durling and all of the other collaborators, including myself. All of these events are free and the public is warmly encouraged to attend and participate.

Author: Daniel Sarefield

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