Malden Reads catches fire: The timeless themes of Fahrenheit 451

The Malden High School jazz band were a feature performance for the NEA Big Read Opening Celebration. (Photo by Diana Jeong)

A book that imagines a future without books inspired activities during opening-day celebrations on Jan. 11 for the tenth anniversary of Malden Reads: One City, One Book.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s landmark dystopian novel, has been selected for the “NEA Big Read: Malden 2020”  – the first time Malden Reads has picked a classic novel as a book for the entire city to read and ponder. A host of events are planned to explore the novel’s themes, including film screenings, discussions, a podcast series, youth activities, and a presentation on Bradbury’s life and influence. Copies of the book are available at the Malden Public Library, including translated print versions, audio and electronic formats.

This year, Malden Reads was selected as one of only 78 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Big Read grant. An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, the mission of the NEA Big Read is “to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”

Saturday’s evening kickoff event featured personalized poetry instantly composed on old-fashioned typewriters, an interpretive dance inspired by the the book, and improvisation from True Story Theater based on audience members’ thoughts on censorship, book burning, oppression and other topics.

(Photo Gallery below: The Traveling Poetry Emporium and their poem recipients at the kickoff. Photos by Susan Margot Ecker and Stephanie Schorow, as captioned. Article continues.)

While Fahrenheit 451 was published more than 65 years ago, many participants in Saturday night’s kickoff celebration said that its depiction of a repressive authority fearful of ideas has resonance today.

“It has to do with the important of books and ideas; it has to do with alienation and disconnection due to the intrusion of media in our lives,” said Anne D’Urso-Rose, Malden Reads co-facilitator and Associate Director of MATV, a lead organization for the program.  “It has to do with censorship and our disconnection from nature — all of these things we are seeing evidence of in our society today.”

(Photo gallery below: Choreographer Karen Krolak from Monkeyhouse performs with a chair to demonstrate the act of reading a good book. (Photos by Susan Margot Ecker and Stephanie Schorow, as captioned. Article continues.)

Older Malden residents, who read the book years ago, say they are anxious to rediscover Bradbury’s world where books are banned and, if discovered, burned by firemen.

“I remember loving the book – and I read other Ray Bradbury books because of it,” said Caroline Whiddon, founder of Me2/Classical Music for Mental Health, who was showcasing the organization at the kickoff event. “I view (Malden Reads) as an opportunity for me to go back and revisit something that I loved as a kid.”

Malden Deputy Fire Chief, William P. Sullivan, who represented the fire department at the kickoff, recalls the book as “disturbing” since Bradbury’s firemen were tasked with burning books rather than putting out fires. The narrative follows the growth of fireman Guy Montag who begins to question authority and starts reading a forbidden novel.

(Photos with Malden Deputy Fire Chief Bill Sullivan. Photos by Susan Margot Ecker and Diana Jeong, as captioned. Article continues.)

Burning a book is “one of the saddest things in the world,” said writer, musician and storyteller CD Collins, who looks forward to reading the book for the first time. “To have something that is a cultural artifact be destroyed – it’s a moral crime.” The book’s selection by Malden Reads is “a brilliant choice, given what’s going on in the world,” she said.

Fahrenheit 451 may be set in a print-based world but it addresses the question: “Who is controlling the information that we get?” said Karen Krolak of Monkeyhouse, a non profit that connects community with choreography. “That is huge right now, whether in a political landscape or in terms of what’s going on with many of the technology companies and how things get sorted through filters and algorithms.”

Giuliannah reads her original work created in the Mini Writers Den, a program for middle school students spearheaded by Malden Reads and Tufts University. (Photo by Susan Margot Ecker.)

Some residents wondered how today’s Internet- and tech-savvy young people will react to a book written decades before personal computers and when television was the new technology. “I think it will be interesting to see the way kids relate to it today because burning a book feels odd in a Kindle generation,” said Krolak. “You can’t really destroy a book in the same way today.”

Thirteen-year-old Fiona Goodwin, who was waiting patiently to get a personal poem, said she would be reading Bradbury’s book during school next year. Against a backdrop of clacking typewriter keys, she explained that her favorite book was An Anonymous Girl and described the plot in detail. Asked how she would feel if someone wanted to burn that book, she reacted with wide-eyed surprise:  “It’s a good book. I don’t know why anyone would want to burn it.”

Members of the Malden Reads Steering Committee with Councillor-at-Large Steve Winslow and Mayor Gary Christenson (center), who presented a citation to the group on the occasion of their 10th anniversary year. Photo by Stephanie Schorow.

Yet “books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years,” according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine which details book burnings through the ages. Book burning was a tool used by Nazis; more recently zealots in this country announced plans to burn copies of the Quran. The American Library Association keeps a running record of banned or challenged books.

Yet Bradbury’s aim in writing the book was more to prevent a dystopian future, than to predict one, said D’Urso-Rose. “We want people to think about the book – talk about it – be involved and join the conversation,” she said.

An eventgoer peruses the Calendar of Events brochure. (Photo by Stephanie Schorow.)

A variety of upcoming events will provide opportunity for such conversations.

Discussions on the book will be held Feb. 12, 7 p.m., Dockside Restaurant, 229 Center St.; Feb. 18, 11 a.m. Malden Senior Center, 7 Washington St.; March 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Idle Hands Craft Ales, 89 Commercial St. (over 21); March 19, 6:30 p.m., Malden Public Library, 37 Salem St.; March 29, noon, First Parish Church, 2 Elm St.; and May 16, noon, Malden River, exact location TBA

A Malden Reads Community Dinner will be held on Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at Ethiopian Restaurant, 1 Highland Ave. A second Community Dinner will be held in April at Emone Tofu.

Sam Weller, an expert on Bradbury’s life and legacy, will be presenting two classes at Malden High and giving a public talk in early April; details TBA.

A capstone event on May 2 will be the Mass. Memories Road Show in Malden, an archival history event planned in collaboration with UMass Boston that invites the community to share photos and stories to become part of a digital archive.

Other events are being planned. For a complete list and more details, go to:

Companion books for this year’s Malden Reads include contemporary examinations of the themes in Fahrenheit 451, including The Book Thief, The Last Book in the Universe, Ban this Book and The Storyteller.



  1. My 10 year old grandson who is an avid reader and lives in Malden read this book a couple of months ago. I would love to see him involved in some of these activities.

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