When We Stop Reading

Warnings from Fahrenhiet 451

Even though I have always been an avid fan of science fiction, for whatever reason I had never read the classic Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451.  At least not until recently, when my step-son had to read it as he was beginning his freshmen year in high school.  He wanted some help in the assignment so I took the book and read it on a flight during a business trip, taking some notes to help him analyze the plot.  After reading the book, I thought it a bit ironic yet wonderful that it is required reading today given its theme.  At least we aren’t as far gone as the story had predicted we could be.  Actually, Bradbury had said that the purpose of the novel, as with much science fiction of his time, wasn’t to predict the future, but rather to prevent it.  And while certain elements of the story thankfully have not come to pass, such as the practical extinction of books or the series of atomic wars; there is far too much that has come to fruition.  In fact, with the direction of technology today and the parts of it that are embraced, I believe that humanity has already begun to travel down this road.  Not necessarily in the literal burning of books, but with the cultural outlook of the novel.

If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you do so.  If you read it as a teenager and are an old fart like me, I suggest you read it again.  If you’ve seen either of the movies of the same title, I really suggest you read the book.  After all, the various forms of media that replace books represent the manner in which humanity begins to fall apart in this story.  Of course, Bradbury didn’t dislike radio or television or the silver screen simply for what they were, but rather the quality of what he witnessed it producing.  He even touches on this in the novel.  Books were not special in themselves, but because of what they contained.  He was witnessing the demise of good storytelling in the way that radio and television began to be more about quick bite size morsels of entertainment rather than the type of thing that causes one to think.  What would he think of YouTube?  With the advent of television, he saw the beginnings of entertainment that lacked substance or any real coherent thought.  As an intellectual, he saw this new form of media as being subpar to what was commonly found in good books.  Not just new technology but he even saw the written word being threatened by the popularity of comic books and Reader’s Digest, created for those who couldn’t be bothered to read a whole book.  But has this consumer media gotten to a point that he envisioned in Fahrenheit 451?

I think yes and no.  I believe that we’ve had some wonderful stories and art in various forms from the 1950’s until today, using the many progressions in technology of media.  From the written word to song lyrics, from well written television series to spectacular movies, from graphic novels to video games, from opinion pieces to almost every bit of knowledge only a keystroke away online, we are not starving for quality of media.  But with all the great things that technology has given us, there is much more that has poisoned the well.  The television screens covering the walls and the earpieces constantly stimulating the senses of its recipients are not for the realm of science fiction anymore.  More and more, we are constantly staring at our handheld screens, wearing ear buds, and having less and less meaningful conversations with those we meet.  One cannot go anywhere without a screen within our senses.  Restaurants, bars, airports, highways, and even gas stations are bombarding us with useless information, advertisements, or some form of entertainment.  And as suggested in the book, memory is not as important when information is at our fingertips.  Our entertainment is constant and quite often very superficial.  Sex and violence sell and they sell spectacularly.  And often, people have become numb to the “real” world around them.  There is also the reality of social media where we can communicate with people all over the world with whom we’ve never actually met.  This is strangely reminiscent of the “family” that Mildred engages with in her parlor.  They entertain her with stories of their lives that are ridiculously superficial. 

It is interesting to note the effects of this type of culture that Bradbury envisions.  In many ways, he is a prophet, announcing that if things proceed in such a manner, bad things will indeed happen.  Consider some of the results of this “pursuit of happiness” as seen in his dystopian world.  Violence, murder and suicide are commonplace, especially among the young.  And it’s considered normal, even expected.  Divorce, remarriage, abortion, and drug addiction are also not out of the ordinary for most adults.  Remember, this was written in the 50’s, but how much is coming to pass in recent years?  In his future world, fast cars and extreme risk taking are already the most popular pastimes for the youth.  And contrary to the way in which many remember or classify this novel, it was not the government that banned books, but rather that people stopped reading.  Society did this to itself.  Later, because of the effect that it had on the populace; the government stepped in to ensure that people didn’t start reading again.  Because educated, enlightened people would be appalled at the state of the world which their parents had created.  They would rebel.  Entertainment without value, not religion, was the opiate of the masses here.  But what would drive society to get to this point, and more importantly, why would a society without books look the way it does in the story?  I believe there are two more ideas put forth in the novel that many would rather gloss over, yet they point to a very real threat. 

On the surface of the novel, and given the background of the new forms of entertainment, Bradbury warns that this short attention span entertainment would be the death of society.  Stories would no longer influence virtue, knowledge would consist of facts without context, and there would be no true leisure to encourage philosophy.  But what real world shifts in culture would allow this to happen?  There are a few passages in which we can see where authors and publishers themselves also contributed to this culture devoid of books.  They are afraid of political correctness; there is always someone who is offended by something.  And of course, no one wants to offend anyone.  It is the minorities and those who don’t want to offend them that are the tipping point on this path.  Now before we accuse anyone of being a racist or bigot, let us understand who these “minorities” are with a bit of context.  They are basically anyone who might be, or have a certain like or dislike, or affiliation, or hobby, or interest, or lack of interest that is: different than someone else.  To quote an passage from the book, the fire chief explains:

“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!” 

Even when considering the era in which the novel was written, I do not believe that Bradbury was saying this in a prejudiced way.  It’s not just about protected classes as we would speak of today; he’s really talking about anyone who might be triggered by anything that they feel is unpleasant.  To put it in a very direct way and to show that he is not trying single out only one group of people we get these examples, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.”  Minorities for Bradbury can refer to any group of people, or one might even say, the individual.  To have a different thought or perspective suddenly becomes suspect and people don’t want to be unique anymore, or to have their differences pointed out.  The author is actually in favor of minorities celebrating what makes them unique, rather than focusing on what someone else thinks about them.  So the solution in this horrific future is to rewrite history and broaden entertainment so vastly that it appeals to all the masses.  And to do so is to go to the lowest common denominator.  Now it bears asking whether we have already hit this tipping point in our current society.  Haven’t we began to self-edit or ban any number of books, photos, art, or various forms of entertainment because they might offend someone?  Do we tear down statues and memorials that may point to an ugly time in our history?  Even in the workplace, I am reminded of how many old sayings and metaphors are forbidden for fear that somebody might feel they are the victim of micro-aggression.  How many schools still have books by Mark Twain in their libraries?  How many public schools would even consider the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, or the Koran worth looking at as literature? 

And that brings me to the second point that is often overlooked when looking at this book as a warning for future generations.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that the book our hero Montag ends up taking as a symbol of his enlightenment is the Bible?  In terms of symbolism, the word “bible” does quite literally mean library of books.  It’s not one but many books written over thousands of years by various authors.  It contains every genre of writing and has been interpreted in multiple ways.  It is also considered timeless and holy by many people, including most of his audience when this book was written.  It is about both history and the future.  Many have suggested that this is the reason why this book was chosen.  But it is also worth noting that while there are numerous references to various books and authors throughout the novel, there is a lot of attention given to books of the bible.  Bradbury wasn’t a “religious” man in the sense of prescribing to a particular organized religion but he does reference Christ and God a lot in his stories.  He understood and believed that Love was the cornerstone of any legitimate faith system.  (Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘monsters and angels’   John Blake, CNNAugust 2, 2010 12:33 p.m. EDT).  In Fahrenheit 451, I believe that the bible wasn’t just a metaphor for the history and knowledge of books, but also the importance of faith and love.  His wife no longer “loved” anyone except for her Technicolor family.  Most of those living in the city didn’t love anyone or care about those that died or were killed.  His wife’s friends spoke of their husbands and children as if they were simply objects that took up space in their homes. 

It would follow from the society illustrated in this novel that religious faith would have no place.  In fact, Jesus was used as an advertisement gimmick.  Nothing was sacred, nothing really mattered.  Such a culture built without love or any stories that could celebrate love was doomed.  And of course, that is exactly what happened to this population.  At the moment when those in power were in the process of declaring war which would end up being their end, the populace were more concerned with watching a police chase through their city.  They were rejoicing in the death of someone that they knew nothing about.  During that chase, Montag is almost run over by a speeding car, intentionally.  This was just considered fun for the youth involved.  Even the firemen had sport feeding cats and other animals to their mechanical hound.  He describes a society with no moral compass.  There are no epic myths, fables, or parables to teach virtue.  In essence, people have forgotten what it is like to be human.  I am not alone in thinking that religion and spirituality is one of the things that separates man from beast.  Many anthropologists look to the first time when our ancestors showed signs of a belief system, such as burying their dead with some sort of ritual, that showed that they had reached a place of enlightenment that distinguished them as human.  Unfortunately, it seems that many in our society today are not telling the stories of faith to the next generation, and losing their souls in the process.  Have we begun the descent into a dystopian future not so very different than what Bradbury was warning us about? I do believe it can be avoided, but only if we continue to tell the important stories, and also create new ones for each generation.

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