by William H. Benson
May 31, 2018,
The invention that makes men and women most human is recorded language, embodied in the alphabet. In the far distant past, a wise soul decided to attach a written character to a human sound. Today, when we see “Sh, z, p, th, t, b, or d” on a printed page, we know the sound, we imitate it, and we understand the idea that the author recorded and wished to convey to his or her readers.
By stringing together letters in ink on white paper, men and women for centuries have transmitted their ideas into the future. Books record an author’s thoughts, opinions, experiences, and emotions.
Animals lack this ability. They cannot relive or experience another animals’ life moments. Instead, they experience life moment by moment, second by second, with little reflection on their past.
Teachers encourage their students to read, and many do. Elementary students read grade school-level books, mainly fiction. Middle school students love to read adventure stories, like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Charlotte’s Webb, Tarzan of the Apes, or Robinson Crusoe.
At some point in high school though, some students surrender their love for the adventure story and gravitate toward more serious works, like Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
After college, adults, more often than not, lay aside books, especially those of literature. They have jobs, a boss to obey, families to feed, endless football and basketball games that need watched, and little spare time. If they read at all, they read books and papers that their jobs require. Warren Buffett says, “I read 500 pages every day,” but he reads business publications.
This past week I read one guy’s opinion, “I am still fascinated by how much a person can change by reading a single book. Books carry decades and centuries of knowledge and wisdom.”
Over the past couple of weeks, I have re-read three novels I read in high school: Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies. Each are short, fun, easy to read, and packed with ideas.
George Orwell published Animal Farm on August 17, 1945. In it, the animals on Farmer Jones’s farm headbutt Jones off the farm and take over his land and farming operation. One pig, Napoleon, then dictates how the other animals, those he calls his “comrades,” will work.
Napoleon says, “the happiest animals live simple lives,” and he formulates Seven Commandments that he inscribes on the barn wall. Number seven reads, “All animals are equal.”
The cart-horse, Boxer, says often, “I must work harder,” and “Napoleon is always right.” The sheep bleat out the farm’s slogan, “Four legs are good. Two legs are bad.”
Orwell admitted that his book is an allegory, and that Animal Farm represents the Soviet Union, and that Napoleon is Stalin. In order to consolidate Napoleon’s power, the pig transforms each of the seven commandments. The seventh becomes, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In October of 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451. The title, he said, came from a Fire Chief at the Fire Department, who explained, “Book-paper catches fire at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Bradbury’s main character, Guy Montag, lives in an anti-intellectual world where possession of a book is criminal. Guy and his fellow firemen start fires by spraying kerosene-fueled flames that they aim at books, or at the houses that contain books.
One night at a fire, out of curiosity, Guy conceals some books under his arm, takes them home, and reads them. He reads Ecclesiastes and Revelations from the Bible, works by Thoreau and Shakespeare and Jefferson, and is amazed. He decides he must quit burning books, and his life begins to unravel.
William Golding published Lord of the Flies on September 17, 1754. To his wife, he explained that he wanted to write a book about how a group of boys would change, for the worse, if tossed together on a deserted island, without the protective influence of adults nearby.
Instead of enjoying the adventure together, the boys—Ralph, Jack, and Piggy—divide into vicious tribes, each intent on subduing or killing the other. The boys cling to a superstitious belief that a beast, the Lord of the Flies, lives on the island, and to flush out the beast, they set the island on fire.
In short, the boys transform into monsters, lacking pity for the others.
Golding said, that “the shape of society depends directly upon the ethical nature of the individual,” and that “civilized society can quickly deteriorate into danger, terrorism, and anarchy.”