A Fire on 95th Street
It would be difficult to find a neighborhood more concentrated with left-leaning intelligentsia than the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Which is not to say there are not conservatives, curmudgeons, and random people who think the world is going to hell in a handbag, but the traditional Person On The Street on the Upper West Side is likely, at the very least, to be four-square for the First Amendment.
Which is why my daughter burning a book on the sidewalk occasioned considerable outrage.
It was a perfectly gorgeous Saturday in spring; Julie, age 11 and at the tail end of 6th grade, had to do a multi-media report on a book of her choice, and the book of her choice was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. She had discussed the project with her teacher, and decided to do a three dimensional collage representing the pile of books that are burned in the book; ringed round the pile would be text from the novel (one of the major discussions was which quote; the book is chock full of good lines).
If there’s one thing we have around the house, it’s books. Some of them so old and tattered they would probably go up in smoke at an incendiary glance; others still young and green enough that a match would be required. And I’m afraid I feel rather proprietary–nearly maternal–about all of them. It took us several hours to find a grocery-bag full of books that could be sacrificed in the name of education, and I insisted, for safety’s sake, that this all be done outside on the sidewalk, where nothing much could catch fire. A book-burning kit was added to the bag: matches, oven mitts, a bucket (to be filled with water just before we went downstairs), a couple of tired old dish towels which would be sacrificed if necessary to smothering flames. In my head I had moved beyond issues of censorship and was thinking of getting my kids through this alive.
Saturday morning Julie and her little sister and I went downstairs and found a nice clear patch of sidewalk on our quiet side street, and set up for business. I supervised and distracted Becca (who was six, and to whom this was Just Another Inexplicable Thing Her Sister Did) while Julie went to work.
The first book burned too fast. Kid didn’t want a pile of ashes; she wanted books in various stages of char. This was how we decided that old, worn paperbacks were a bad idea. She took up a book of actuarial tables and had better luck with that, although working out the routine of lighting the page, blocking the breeze, pulling on the oven mitt, and putting out the flame when just the right amount of book had been burnt, took a little work. About the time the third book had been lit, an elderly couple came down the street, moving urgently. The man was practically waving his cane. The woman yelled: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”
Julie, to her credit, finished putting out the book before she turned around. “It’s for a class project,” she said.
“WHAT KIND OF SCHOOL ASSIGNS YOU TO BURN BOOKS?” (I was not sure if the woman was upset or deaf or both, but she was very loud.) “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO BURNED BOOKS?”
For a moment Julie looked a bit confused; in her mind at that moment, the answer would have been Montag, the “fireman” from Fahrenheit 451. “My school didn’t assign me to burn books; I’m doing an art project about a book about a man who–”
“BURNING BOOKS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO DO!”
“I know! That’s what the book is about.”
“WHAT BOOK IS THIS?”
Fortunately, we’d brought her copy of Fahrenheit 451 downstairs with us. Julie took off the oven mitt and showed the book. The woman reached for it, but the old man, whose caterpillar-like eyebrows had been working up and down with alarm, suddenly looked enlightened.
“Ahh,” he said. He turned to his companion. “She’s making art.”
“SHE’S BURNING BOOKS!”
He nodded. “I’ve read that book. It’s says that burning books is a terrible thing. She’s making art to show that.” He smiled at Julie. “Go ahead, sweetheart.” And he looped his arm through his companion’s and continued onward toward Amsterdam Avenue.
They weren’t the only ones to comment negatively on Julie’s project. By the time she had crisped the seven or eight books she required, four or five more people had come by and viewed with alarm. Each time she got a little better at explaining what she was doing, leading with “I’m doing an art project to demonstrate that burning books is bad.” She got into some interesting discussions. By the end of the hour or so it took her to get done, she was exhausted and a little annoyed at having had to explain what she was doing over and over again. From their accents, I think that the first couple were from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and likely immigrants from a formerly Communist country. The others who stopped were old and young, black and white. All were at least dismayed by what they saw happening. The protest I liked best came from a little kid who was out with his dad. “Don’t you like books?”
“I love them so much I don’t want anyone to do this. Ever. Plus, it’s for school.”
The little boy nodded and they went on. They’ll ask you to do anything if it’s for school.