David Dodd 4:24 p.m., May 22
Every year Write Out Loud, the popular company that performs stories, plays, and poems has a Big Read. This year it's Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. In April, the group will offer "community reads" and panel discussions. They also encourage students (ages 14 to 24) to read the book now and create a response: "a poem, short story, dialogue or monologue, illustration, science experiment," or whatever else the novel inspires.
Student creations will be part of a month-long celebration in April. Entries and proposals must be submitted by February 15, 2013, to email@example.com.
In the novel, a reactionary regime burns books. Brainwashed into believing that government-controlled TV tells the only truth, the citizenry incinerates anything that's "too aware of the world."
To preserve the past, stragglers memorize texts they feel are important. No rules govern which. They can memorize a part or the whole, and the same choice as someone else.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, would have approved.
He preferred the pre-writing tradition of memorization. When you commit something to memory, he said, you make it your own, "from the inside."
The only writing he appreciated was the "living, breathing discourse of the man who knows - i.e. the philosophers - and few of them (i.e. Plato). But even this kind serves as little more than a re-minder of what the writer meant, since it relies on "signs that belong to others."
In the Phaedrus, Plato tells the Egyptian story of Toth, who invented writing, and Ammon, who distrusts it. Writing something down, Ammon argues, will "induce forgetfulness." Because people will not "practice using their memory." Relying on ciphers outside itself, the mind will atrophy.
More trouble. Ammon says writing is like painting. Once a work's completed, and the author's no longer around, misreadings become inevitable: "when attacked unfairly, it always needs its father's support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support."
People who rely on writing "will imagine they have come to know much," but will "know nothing." Because of this, Ammon concludes, "they will be difficult to get along with, since they merely appear to be wise."
If writing's at such a treacherous remove from reality, one shudders to imagine how Plato would react to text messages and emails, not to mention reliance on calculators and terse explanations on the internet.
As part of the Big Read, Write Out Loud encourages patrons to "select a book, story, or poem you would want saved in the event all literature was destroyed, then memorize it (or a portion of it) as the characters in Fahrenheit 451 do" (and if you'd like to recite it in April, contact Write Out Loud).
To know it, in other words, by heart.