Ray Bradbury passed away last week at the age 91. I decided to re-read his classic work, Fahrenheit 451 when I heard the news and read his obituary. I tried to rationalize that I didn't have the time, as there are far too many other books I haven't even read once. Why read this one twice? Well, after a few days I picked the book off the shelf and started over again. I'm very glad I did. It has proved extremely rewarding and proved to me that one never reads the same book twice, because you will be a different person the second time you read it.
The edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I have features a post-script and an interview with Bradbury done in the past ten years, commenting on some general features of his writing, with some particular questions about Fahrenheit 451. He wrote the rough draft of the book in a library, renting typewriters for a dime per half hour. He spent nine days furiously typing and the total cost of renting the typewriters was $9.80. One of his comments is that he wrote his books in huge bursts of passion, reacting to whatever was important in his life at the time. Obviously as a writer, he had a love of books, and he saw TV as possibly posing a threat to books, or at least some major competition in the future. It's scary just how close his vision has matched up with reality in the 60 years since his writing the rough draft.
A. The Existence of a Media-Driven Culture
In Fahrenheit, the popular culture and the "average" household revolves around non-stop entertainment. Homes are centered on their super-advanced televisions, which are no longer single screens. Those who can afford them have three or four screen models, ideally covering each wall in an entire room. But they're pricey, at $2,000 apiece. Furthermore, the broadcast programs have been cut down significantly in time. An entire series can be viewed in an exhilarating ten minutes.
The main character, Guy Montag, has provided well for his wife, and she has a three wall set-up. She paid extra so that the announcers and actors address her by name. The extra money paid for a device that even makes the announcer's lips mouth her name. She is completely sucked into this world of entertainment, and is begging her husband to add a fourth screen as soon as possible. Even though the cost of the screen is a huge portion of Guy's salary, she insists on how important this purchase would be.
When she finally goes to their bedroom, where they have their own beds, Guy's wife pops in her microscopic ear piece and lets the news and radio drift her of into a sleep that is often drug-induced. Even when her husband is not feeling good, she refuses to turn off the screens, or even turn the volume down. She refers to the announcers as her "relatives." When she socializes with friends, the entire focus is on programs being broadcast on air or which will soon be broadcast.
B. Books: Banished from Society, by Society
Guy Montag is a fireman. But in the future envisioned by Bradbury, firemen don't put fires out; they start them. Guy works at the fire house only in the evenings, and inevitably this is the only time they ever receive any alerts. Alerts are placed when anyone suspects that their friend or neighbor has been harboring books. The firemen wheel up to the house, douse the books in kerosine, and set them on fire. The fires always draw a crowd; it's a good show. Furthermore, the burning of books didn't happen by a government mandate. People in the culture started destroying them on their own, and this only later was codified into law.
C. The Disappearance of Leisure and Reflection
This girl, Clarisse, says her family sits around and talks. They used to talk on porches but houses no longer have porches, so they sit inside and talk. She leads Guy to begin thinking about things differently. He gets curious about why fires are started and not put out any more. Eventually the temptation gets to him, and he wants to find out what all the fuss is about these books. Perhaps even more curiously, he wants to know why he never talks to anybody. He never thinks about anything. He just reacts, and as far as he can tell, everyone around him has given up thinking. They just do whatever their televisions say. Entertainment abounds, but nobody really relaxes anymore. Nobody really has fun, there is no actual happiness, despite all the methods of entertainment that seem to fill everyone's day.
D. A Way Out
In due time, Guy is of course caught and an alarm set out against him. I won't spoil the entire book, but this is the essence of the book: Guy finds someone who still remembers the olden times of literary discussion, argument, and in general, the liberal arts tradition. They represent a minority, and even still speak of things like the Bible. But they maintain the connection to the past by never forgetting the great books of the world. They won't win the world over by sheer numbers, but they are confident that, eventually, people will want to know what they've been trying so hard to forget. And when the time is right, they'll be ready with the answers. The answers will be Shakespeare, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Voltaire, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Kant, Schweitzer, Milton, Poe, etc.
Bradbury saw a future where people would no longer think for themselves. They were bombarded with images and sounds, colors, music, words. From their morning rise to their last moments of consciousness each night, they are "plugged in."
He hit on such a prophetic streak with this book! Look around at our world today. TVs may only be single screens, but the other screens are already in the room: cell phone screens, computer screens, tablets, and who knows what else coming down the pipe. Just like the futuristic world Bradbury envisioned, books seem to be vanishing from society. Even more quickly disappearing is real discussion about ideas. People spend abnormal amounts of time discussing the latest gossip, sports, and other forms of diversion and entertainment. But how often do we have discussions (or even real arguments!) about things that matter. Things like justice, faith, peace, freedom, joy, beauty, God, goodness, art, etc.
Surely in this scary vision of the future, Bradbury was right. We're looking more and more like that frightening world every day. And there don't seem to be a lot of signs that we're slowing down or changing directions any time soon.
However, just as he saw the problem correctly, I believe he sees the solution correctly. The way out is for those who have the time, for those who have the energy, to do something. We need to tell people about books. We need to show how important ideas are. We need to bring up books in discussions with people, and remind them about their existence. A great way to do this is to just start reading!
One of Fahrenheit's characters comments that what's so great about books, as opposed to tv, is that if you disagree with a book's main point, you can put it down. You can argue with it. You can write a book to counter it. TV shows and movies don't really give us the same chance. They keep on rolling along, producing more episodes, more shows, more movies, more of the same. And reasoning or arguing with it? Doesn't work very well. It's almost impossible to convince, for example, the average teenage girl that a show like Pretty Little Liars is dangerous to her. But with books, you get that chance.
Personally, I've long desired to embark upon a reading of the Great Books of the Western World. Considering some of the work I do now and some preparation I'm currently working on for an adult catechesis program aimed at helping parents conquer the big dragon that is the modern media, and after re-reading this prophetic vision of the world we're living in now, I am more than ever inspired to pursue that goal. True, I may have a full-time job, a one year-old baby and a new addition expected in January. I am also working on a masters degree in my "spare" time which will soon require me to learn Greek without the benefit of a classroom in which to do so or a teacher to guide me. Even still, I am making a commitment today, to save the money for a new book shelf and a set of the Great Books. I have to do what little I can to stem the tide, and to be there with some of the "answers" for others in the coming generations, first and foremost for my own children.