I’ve been a fan of the late Ray Bradbury ever since picking up The Martian Chronicles at the local children’s library sometime around 5th grade, and I’ve returned again and again to his short fiction. But somehow, I had managed until just recently to miss what is perhaps his signature novel, Fahrenheit 451, which will mark sixty years in print on October 19. I knew it by reputation only: it was that novel about authoritarian censorship, set in a future where a totalitarian government burns books to keep people under control. It was a dystopia in the vein of George Orwell’s similarly repressive 1984.
If the above summary really represented the heart of Bradbury’s novel, then it might be little more than a literary curiosity today. Sure, there are the occasional and infamous Harry Potter or Qur’an book-burnings by conservative Christians, and yes, the American government is capable of being secretive — but all-in-all, the kind of state-sponsored, oppressive, dystopian mind-control that I expected to find in Fahrenheit 451 has simply not come to pass. The above examples are the exceptions that prove the rule: people react vehemently against a hint of book-burning, while protests abound in countless forms when any government action smacks of autocracy. In an interview a decade ago, when asked, “What forms of censorship do you regard as the most dangerous today?”, Bradbury himself responded, “There are none in our country.”
Does that mean that Fahrenheit 451 is outdated? Is it a relic, a dark future that was actually averted? Hardly. What I found in reading the text itself is that the novel’s content is in some ways far more unnerving because it’s far more prescient than I’d ever expected. Of course, it is a book about a “fireman” named Guy Montag who burns books — that much is accurate. What I did not realize is that, while Bradbury’s future government does sponsor the incineration of printed material, it does so not despite but because of the will of the people. As Montag’s boss, the disaffected former litterateur Beatty, points out, ordinary Americans resisted the cultural and intellectual challenges inherent in substantial reading:
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…
Orwell had created a horrific future drawn from his understanding of Soviet excesses in which people had media-manipulated mind control forced on them. And such societies certainly exist. But Bradbury’s dystopia is fully American in that its citizens choose the mind-numbing control of their future. No character more perfectly embodies this voluntary deadness than Montag’s wife Mildred. Housebound and trapped beneath her heavy make-up, she lives for her “family,” the name she gives the media characters that interact with her on her home’s giant wall-sized (high definition?) screens. She is so anesthetized to existence that she attempts suicide early in the novel, yet later cannot even remember that she has done so. Bradbury juxtaposes her against Clarisse McClellan, a local teenager who actually leaves her home to go on walks, appreciates the experience of nature, and can engage in thoughtful interpersonal conversation. It is Clarisse who sets Montag to questioning his own purpose in life.
However, while Bradbury’s little book is full of anti-media screeds, he is not intrinsically opposed to technological advancement. In Faber, a former professor who still meekly holds out hope for a thoughtful future culture, he explicitly rejects a books-for-books’-sake argument:
It’s not books you need. It’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the “parlor families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored things we’re afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
The problem with the social media (if you will) in Fahrenheit 451 is not their very existence but in the way they exacerbate the tendency toward scattered, shallow thinking. Faber describes Bradbury’s three-fold requirement for any reflective civilized society: “quality of information… leisure to digest it… the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”
Fortunately, 21st century America is by no means the nightmarish future envisioned in Fahrenheit 451. There is still room for anyone who so desires to practice all three of Faber’s criteria. Yet it would be difficult to deny that potential threats exist to the first two criteria (largely self-imposed threats, as in Bradbury’s novel). The media market clearly demonstrates that many people choose poor quality in their reading, viewing, or experience. And Americans as a whole are well-documented workaholics who often leave little time for leisure (much of which may be spent channel-surfing or computer-scrolling). Without the first two requirements, the third becomes moot. Fahrenheit 451 is, in a sense, a challenge. Will we choose to create our own dystopia, as Bradbury’s 24th century did? The options for remain open to us.
The best books — like the best music or television or movies or comics or video games — can challenge us and force us to think or perceive aspects of life that we may prefer to avoid. In a sense, they threaten us. The Bible itself — one of the texts Bradbury’s book finds worth preserving — certainly achieves this end. Perhaps we desire to go through life like Mildred Montag: unchallenged, unthreatened, and living in an oblivious, media-saturated world that eschews quality and leisure in favor of shallow stimulation. Or perhaps we can be vulnerable to the harsh, beautiful power of a good book. Six decades since its first printing, Fahrenheit 451 is still on shelves, still challenging and threatening readers. That, at least, is a good sign.