“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, 1951

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The classic whose title has come to represent book burning and censorship, started out as a short story called “The Fireman”.   Soon it was expanded into a 167 page novel, and subsequently made into a radio drama, stage play, and movie.   Although the public has associated it with government sponsored censorship, the author, Ray Bradbury, has stated that it is not so much about state censorship, but about individuals shrinking away from challenging, thought-provoking works of art to settle for the lowest common denominator of mindless entertainment.   As he puts it in the story through the character of the fire chief: “‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually [sic] neglected, finally almost completely ignored.  Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?'”  Later, he says: “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”  Eventually the government does get involved and declares books illegal and employs firemen to burn any books that are reported.   Aside from the reasons given in the story and Bradbury’s interview account, history seems to be full of government sponsored censorship, including book burnings of which there is a long list of on Wikipedia. Whatever the source of the curtailment of ideas and critical thinking, “Fahrenheit 451” has resonated with a wide audience the last sixty some years since its first appearance.

For an amusing and well done summary and analysis of “Fahrenheit 415”  please see the video below:


Here is a look at the trailer of the 1966 Francois Truffaut film version:

Bill Sargeant


“The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia” by Orlando Figes, 2007

WhisperersIf you’re feeling a little frustrated with the USA these days: the militarization of the police, the NSA spying on our communications,  the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, etc., here is the book to put all that in perspective.  The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia paints a picture of suffering of a people by their government on a scale so vast and extreme as to rarely, if ever, be equaled in any society.

The title comes from two Russian meanings for the word  ‘whisperer’; “one who whispers out of fear of being overheard” and the other; “one who whispers behind people’s backs to the authorities.”  During Stalin’s reign (1924 to 1953) approximately 28,000,000 ordinary Russian citizens were arrested and executed or sent to Gulag prison work camps for years on the slightest suspicion with or without show trials and usually without any evidence.  Most of the victims sent to the work camps died by freezing, working or starving to death.   Children were brainwashed at school to denounce their parents and have them arrested.  Relatives, neighbors, and co-workers posed the same threat.   Private farms were turned into large collectives which failed agriculturally causing famines and millions of more deaths. Housing was converted to communal apartments packing people into small spaces with communal kitchens and one toilet for maybe fifty people.  Religion was declared illegal and clergy were shot or sent away.  Jews, ethnic minorities, ‘Kulaks’ (slightly more successful peasants), and of course, homosexuals were disenfranchised and mostly shot or sent to the Gulag.  Writers or artists of any kind, who strayed outside the lines of state approved messages were also disenfranchised and or arrested.  World War II is remembered as ‘the good years’ when the regime was too preoccupied fighting to spy on their citizenry as efficiently as before.   After Stalin died in 1953,  Khrushchev relaxed things a bit with a “thaw” by 1956.  In the years since, it has gone back and forth between a more open, free society and a closed, tightly controlled one.  The survivors of the Stalin period were mostly too traumatized to speak of their experiences.  In a psychological paradox, many Russians today think Stalin was a good leader.

Orlando Figes presents 656 pages of engaging narrative interspersed with quotes from survivors and surviving relatives. Approximately 500 interviews were conducted as well as research of public and private archives to bring us the up-close-and-personal view into the nightmare that was the Soviet Union.   I’m grateful to have read this book.

Bill Sargeant


“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, 2011




IMG_3069The Sense of an Ending deals with endings of relationships and lives as Tony Webster, now retired, attempts to reconcile aspects of his past with the present.  The two other central characters are Veronica, his mysterious first girlfriend in college, and Adrian, his intellectual high school friend, who is in some ways his polar opposite. In his 60’s, Tony receives a letter informing him that he is named in the will of Veronica’s mother.  He has been out of touch with Veronica and her mother for forty years and the letter serves as a catalyst to revisit his student days and retrieve Adrian’s diary from Veronica, which was bequeathed to him by her mother. Back in the 1960’s Adrian struck up a relationship with Veronica shortly after she dumped Tony.  After a few months or so, Adrian, then a freshman at Cambridge, makes a philosophically based decision to end his life.   Years pass as Tony has lived an ordinary middle-class life; marrying Margaret, having a daughter, Susie, and divorcing Margaret. Now he looks up Veronica for the diary and ruminates about all the social missteps of his life.  Some unexpected facts about Veronica, her mother, and Adrian emerge.  Tony completes his journey back into the past with disquiet and self-reproach: “You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”  ….”There is accumulation.  There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

We all reflect back on moments in our lives, some with more acceptance than others.  This book takes a close look at that and offers insights into how we see our past. Tony has shown us a more pessimistic view.  He, for example, regards Adrian’s youthful suicide as having more integrity than his lifetime of letting things happen to him.  He lacks the acceptance of his mediocre outcomes and minor transgressions which are the consequences of his lifelong insecurities and passivity.  This reader would like to see him close the circle and find his peace, but the author chose to end on the note of ‘unrest’.