A Response to Russell Baker
In 1966, Russell Baker wrote an article for The New York Times defending book-burning.* The article claims that the film Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was nothing more than a “mindless sermon against book-burning” and that books have acquired an undeserved “sacred quality that is shared by no other medium of expression.”
It seems the author of the article feels that most books published in 1966—and, presumably, since—are essentially garbage, and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, because books have acquired this sacred status, throwing out or burning one’s books is regarded in America as a taboo. Thus the author gives us this memorable quote: “If the publishers conceive their function nowadays to be reducing literature to hamburgers, we should feel no guilt about barbecuing it.”
Unfortunately, Baker misses the entire point of the ﬁlm. Even if we were to concede to Baker that donating one’s books to charity instead of shipping them to the dump is some sort of unconscionable travesty—a point with which I do not agree—the ﬁremen in Fahrenheit 451 are not noble service providers helping to unburden the household from having too many old, dusty, no-longer-wanted books lying around. Rather, the ﬁremen in this ﬁlm are employees of the state, and are instructed to conﬁscate books by force, regardless of whether the owner wishes to part with them or not. This is the whole point of the movie; this is what the movie warns against. The movie does not challenge one’s right to burn one’s own books, but rather the power to burn someone else’s. Not only does the state burn the books it conﬁscates, but it forces those caught owning or reading books to undergo “re-education,” i.e., state-enforced indoctrination.
Baker is correct that book owners have a right to dispose of their books as they see ﬁt, but he is completely wrongheaded in his attack on the ﬁlm. The movie does not challenge property rights, which necessarily include one’s natural right to dispose of one’s own property as one sees ﬁt. Rather, the ﬁlm defends property rights. Each of these book owners is denied her or his right to her or his justly-acquired property by the authoritarian state, and precisely because the state wishes to force everyone to be equally uncritical. Under a state like that, how could one not want to cling to every book one is fortunate enough to ﬁnd? Even a book with which I vehemently disagree, such as Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto, would be something to hold on to and cherish in that society.
Baker begins his article by saying that Fahrenheit 451 is “the kind of movie we deserve for refusing to think things through.” Unfortunately, it appears that it was Mr. Baker himself that failed to think things through with this one.
* Russell Baker, “Observer: In Defense of Book Burning; Banned-in-Boston Books Wise, Sensitive and Haunting” The New York Times (27 November 1966), p. E24.