Let us protect porches and rocking chairs

A letter from the Executive Director

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Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 3 minutes
November 17, 2023

When my 8th grade son came home with Fahrenheit 451 for a school assignment last week, I realized I’d never read it. I expected the novel to be primarily about book burning; like most things, when you go to the original source you find a lot more.   

In case you haven’t read it recently (or ever), the firemen of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 burn books in their role as custodians of the public’s peace of mind. Fire Chief Beatty explains, “We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike.”

Ray Bradbury, born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois, created a world in which not only are books illegal, but porches and rocking chairs have also been eliminated. “…they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong kind of social life.” 

Paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, but book burning is just one manifestation of a system in which protecting people from being bothered, conflicted, or upset, results in a world that has removed the possibility of encountering – or having - any ideas at all. 

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(Photo by Mary Rafferty)

We are in a moment in which the lived history of African Americans is deemed “too upsetting” in some states to be included in public school curricula; books that explore diverse racial, social, and gender identities and relationships are being taken off shelves in public libraries; and conversations about the war on Gaza are charged enough that friends and family members feel they have no choice but to censor themselves with one another.  

Humanities organizations hold a precious responsibility to do the opposite of the firemen in Bradbury’s book. It’s our job to create and to protect metaphoric “front porches” and “rocking chairs.” If anything, it’s probably our job to help people take their fingers out of the proverbial dike, as uncomfortable as it may be.

For the past 25 years, one of our programs, the Road Scholars Speakers Bureau has been creating a proverbial “front porch” for people to come together to explore history, art, culture, and ideas. The 250 Speakers involved in the program during its lifetime have crisscrossed our state, driving over 20,000 miles this year alone to deliver over 100 presentations in towns and communities that might otherwise lack access to cultural programming. But these numbers only tell part of the story. It is impossible to calculate the journeys of thought Speakers have taken people on in the hundreds of cities and towns they’ve visited. As one audience member shared: 

“Seeing with eyes other than my own and gaining new insights into familiar topics and sights, whether familiar to me from past history, common experiences, or current life — was my takeaway.”

When we look around our society right now, it’s worth wondering if banning student gatherings on college campuses, or silencing writers, or ceasing film screenings at festivals are the kinds of actions firemen in Bradbury’s world might support. Because, if they are, these kinds of actions may also contribute to a world in which front porches, rocking chairs, and our ability to gather in conversation, also become elusive.

In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the system the firefighters protect “didn’t come from the government down,” it came from us. At Illinois Humanities one of the core values of our work is to make and protect space for the exchange of challenging ideas, meaningful dialogue, and personal reflection. And it is work. This value is put to its most severe test when we encounter speech and ideas that offend our individual or collective morality, identity, or way of life. But, at the least, I believe we must make space for these hazards if we also want the opportunity to encounter ideas which we might not otherwise encounter. We can choose not to engage. That is not the same as choosing to silence our ability to engage with one another. 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury Book Cover

Road Scholar Aaron Lawler offers presentations about Illinois-born author Ray Bradbury and the power of narrative.