I have been taking some time off for personal reasons, but I recently had one of those strange coincidences that seem, in retrospect, ordained from on high by a supernatural power with a distorted sense of humor.
We were in Costco, my bride and I, a few weeks ago, and I was relegated to pushing a cart that would have wearied the patience and drained the endurance of a Missouri mule, when my bride announced she had forgotten something somewhere other than where we were. She must have seen my reaction because she immediately pointed to the book section and suggested I browse while she went and got… Whatever.
Costco does not sell the kinds of books I have any interest in reading. The books I enjoy reading are primarily sold in the kinds of rare bookstores I can’t afford to even enter, but looking at self-help books and celebrity cookbooks and romance novels and thrillers with famous authors’ names on them—though actually written by unknown assistants—all of that seemed preferable to imitating a mule. And as it happened, Costco was selling a 60th Anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
I am not a science fiction fan. The only science fiction I have ever read was the late, great John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamers. I do have, somewhere, a very gracious note written to me by the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin in response to a question of mine about something she once said in an interview, but I have never read any of her work, so that’s it. But there was this 60th Anniversary edition, and there was my groaning cart.
Shortly after I finished reading it, I was watching once of those weekend “news” shows that includes a sort of “man-on-the-street” segment, in this case a reporter asking beautiful bronzed young things on a beach somewhere in southern California about the significance of the Fourth of July. I know there is always a disclaimer to the effect that these are real people giving real answers, but I suspect the reporters must go out of their way to recruit the lowest possible IQs to be found anywhere in the continental landmass of the United States. Certainly, in this case, it was hard for me to believe any of the beautiful bronzed bodies they spoke to could possibly be that ignorant. It would hard to believe your average five-year-old could be that ignorant, but gorgeous young thing after muscular young couldn’t answer a question as tricky, intricate, obscure, complex, and intellectually challenging as, “What is the significance of the Fourth of July.”
I kid you not.
“Christopher Columbus?” was one girl’s answer.
Again, I kid you not.
And that brings me to Fahrenheit 451.
Science fiction can be defined as a projection, by the author, of recognizable people and events of today into a future world with previously unimagined circumstances. If you’re not a science fiction fan, think of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. The science fiction writer’s job, essentially, is to take an ordinary man or woman confronting a relatively minor problem or challenge in today’s world, and to project that into the future while simultaneously expanding the scope and danger of the problem. At least, that is what Ray Bradbury did with Fahrenheit 451.
As I understand it, as a child, Ray Bradbury was one of those little boys drugged on books, a voracious reader who spent more time in libraries than anywhere else. When television came along, he was less than impressed, and projected his fantasies of the worst of what he saw into a world that is set roughly one-hundred-years ahead of the time in which he wrote, which would make the setting of the book about 2052.
I’m sure most people have read Fahrenheit 451, but just as a reminder, the premise is a horrible distortion of an America constantly engaged in some kind of never-ending war with some unnamed “other,” and a government that wants to keep its people both anesthetized and complacently happy so that they won’t ask questions or make trouble. Since books, good books with great writing by great minds—the Bible, Marcus Aurelius, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Love Peacock, Plato, Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin, Schopenhauer, Ortega y Gasset, Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Aeschylus…all those and many more are mentioned or referenced obliquely—can make people think, and if they think, people may possibly become dissatisfied, and then, oh horror, they may ask questions, therefore books must be destroyed. All books. Whenever books are discovered, any books of any kind, a group of men, so-called Firemen (no irony there), go around and burn not just the books, but the homes of the people who were hiding such contraband.
“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less…” “…Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts. Lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”
And, from an earlier draft (the novel was originally written as a short story under another title): “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy because there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon…”
Instead of books, in Fahrenheit 451 people are entertained constantly with a sort of interactive, four-wall, surround-television that can be specifically modified to the whims and desires of each individual viewer whose likes and dislikes are monitored and followed. The actors on the television are called, and become, the “family” of each individual viewer, keeping them so constantly and happily preoccupied they never question anything.
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is one of the team that burns books, but he is beginning to have suspicions something is missing, that there must be something more, and he has begun to cautiously steal books before they can be burned. And therein lies the story.
Bradbury writes in (to quote my son) “a dreamy, febrile, style” which, toward the end, I found to be influenced (I’m guessing here) by the New American Bible version of Ecclesiastes; at least it reads that way. And there is a sparseness to his dreamy, febrile style that leaves room for all kinds of questions, but none of that matters. It is the story that matters, and in light of beautiful, pampered, glossy young Americans on an American beach who didn’t have a clue as to the significance of the Fourth of July, one wonders what Ray Bradbury would have made of the ultimate narcissistic, interactive anesthetic: social Media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and countless other ways I don’t know the names of to peddle absolutely meaningless non-information or outright lies, or maintain ersatz friendships with ersatz “familes.” I think of William Faulkner’s famous quote from Intruder in the Dust:
“…thinking, remembering how his uncle had said that all a man had was time, all that stood between him and the death that he feared and abhorred was time, yet he spent half of it inventing ways to get the other half past…”
Ah, but Faulkner himself is dead now, and his books reduced to ashes.