Set Fire to Your Mind, Not Books

I find it sadly interesting that most of the futures we imagine are dystopian. Really, I challenge you to think of a movie or a book about a distant future where the general sense is that things are better, people are more fulfilled, and overall we are happier.

Many of these dystopian futures involve a high level of control over individual thought and behavior through drugs, genetic engineering, or good old-fashion dictatorial control (which always includes some form of misinformation and history revision).

In 1953, Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel that presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. (The temperature at which paper catches fire and burns is 451° F.) Bradbury stated in 1956 that he wrote the book because of his concerns about the threat of book-burning in the United States (during the McCarthy era), but in later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.

I like the definition of literature in the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica: “the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing.” Notice this does not say “right” thought. Often our “best” thoughts end up being wrong after further discourse or discovery. It is in discussing and codifying these thoughts that literature is born. By reading literature, we learn how thoughts are communicated in ways that sometimes woo and court us and at other times scream and flail at us with clenched fists. By attempting to write, we learn to organize our thoughts and consider how words will be consumed by others who have different experiences and views than ourselves.

I have never considered mass media, social media, or even the traditional news to be literature. They labor under the necessity to address complex topics and situations quickly and without losing the focus of people who have the attention span of a 2-year-old. This renders these media outlets fuzzy at best and most often dangerous.

Reading books, written by educated and skilled authors, transforms the way we think and interact. We are forced to consider the argument and case they make. We must compare the new information to what we have already learned or experienced and determine if we should adjust or adapt. We must think.

In an essay about reading called “Here’s My Secret Weapon: I Read,” Jon Westenberg says, “If you want to accomplish anything of value, challenge yourself to read.” I agree. Westenberg opens the door to reading a wide variety of literature,
including “books about dragons and wizards and ancient spells.” I love that. Great writing is not limited to a topic or genre. I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, and other great sci-fi writers. I also read graphic novels, theology, science textbooks, history, and almost anything I could get my hands on.

If we read a wide variety of literature, including authors and topics we don’t agree with, how do we allow the experience to educate us without overtaking us? In Acts 17, we see the story of the Bereans who “searched the Scriptures day after day” to verify what they were being told.10 Later in the chapter, Paul uses his knowledge of the polytheistic culture of the city to preach about Jesus. This is the key. We must know the Author of Truth if we want to be capable of discerning the truth we find in the world.

I tell my children that there is truth in everything. Sometimes the truth is presented as a negative example, but it is always there. Music, movies, literature, the stories of people’s lives, and our own experiences always highlight the truth of God’s created order and control of the universe. He is inescapable, and therefore his truth is everywhere.

So read. Read as much as you can. Read a variety of things. (I highly recommend anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.) But start by reading your Bible. If you know what God says, it will be easy to see the truth in everything else.