… 449 450 451! Good-Bye, Books …




"Do you think journalism is one of the areas that has significantly improved in Turkey, especially as regards media censorship?" This was a question asked by a Bilkent student during the recent seminars on journalism held by Gazete Bilkent, the university's online student newspaper. Though the question was not an extraordinary one, the response of a well-known newspaper's Ankara representative came as a shock to me. "A few decades ago, newspaper issues or books were removed from newsstands and bookstores if they opposed the viewpoint of the governing body. Moreover, publishing houses were being shut down. So it's safe to say that although censorship still exists, it has much less effect than formerly."

It's true that products of the print media are no longer being removed from the shelves, yet the situation described in the statement should raise the following question rather than being accepted as a sign of improvement: Is it due to a decrease in censorship, or to the fact that most publishing houses refuse to print books that they know would result in government action? As I kept on thinking about media censorship and the extent of its role in people's lives, I realized how much our contemporary society resembles the future society portrayed in one of the greatest dystopias of all time.

"Fahrenheit 451" -- a science fiction novel that caught my attention when I was in middle school -- was written by Ray Bradbury, a National Medal of Arts Award-winning author. My first encounter with the book was via a film adaptation by François Truffaut made in 1966. However, reading the book affects one in a completely different way than seeing the movie, because it is the loss of books that we are being threatened with in the novel.

It was truly intriguing to me to see firemen as fire-starters rather than firefighters, for, in the future society in which the novel takes place, their job is to burn books. It is strictly forbidden to own books, let alone read them. The protagonist of the novel, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to go to houses that contain books and burn them, which does not harm the houses, since they are fireproof.

Montag, who has been working as a fireman for ten years, is content with his life until he meets a girl who questions his happiness. Only after that inquiry does a process of questioning start in Montag's mind, which results in his taking a quick glance at one of the books he is to burn in a library. The joy of reading takes hold of him immediately, causing him to read instead of watching the "parlor walls" (the big screens on the walls that people stand in front of and stare at for hours). He is reported to the fire department by his wife and finds the solution in running away to the forest to live with the "Book People" -- people who spend their lives memorizing a book and "become" that book, so to speak, so that it will continue to exist even when there are no paper copies of it left. Montag decides to become one of the books in the Bible, from which a quotation is given at the end of the novel that leaves the reader with a smile on his face, though the questions that were raised in the prior chapters are not forgotten: "And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

I realize today that the real reason for my admiration for "Fahrenheit 451" is its depiction of the determination of a man who stands up against everything that society expects of him, although the novel seemed nothing more than a science fiction story at the time I first read it. Reading the book for the second time seven years later, it hurts me to see that the things envisioned there have indeed become true in the sixty short years that have passed since Bradbury wrote it. There are parlor walls that people spend hours in front of, without thinking, without perceiving anything happening around them. It has been a long time since people lost interest in reading. People of our time are not so different from the novel characters who think that houses have always been fireproof, for probably we will soon start to think that cell phones and computers have always existed. Finally, although there are no firemen who burn books, there are people who don't publish them; is this really different from burning them? The only missing component of Bradbury's novel is the forest that people with free minds can run away to. I think the best way to honor the author of the novel (who passed away last June) is to find that forest and eternalize books, using not paper and ink, but the mind.

P.S.: 451 Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns. It also is the number of the fire station where Montag worked in "Fahrenheit 451."