The book tells the story of Montag, a fireman, in a near-future American town. In this near future, books are illegal, the government controls all media, and firemen burn houses containing books on as little evidence as a phone call. Montag meets Claire, a girl who gets him thinking about why he does what he does. Then he has to burn the house of a woman who is willing to burn to death herself rather than leave her books. This sparks a rebellion in Montag against the book-burning system.
As with his other books, the images Bradbury conjures are lasting and disturbing – I won’t be forgetting the Mechanical Hound, the “families” in the walls, and the people who all step out their front doors at the same time because TV tells them to.
But more than just imagery and Bradbury’s always beautiful prose, this book is about what we take for granted — it’s about the power of literature and language; the need for people to think critically; and the need for silence and time to reflect on what we read. (On this last point, see a recent article in the New York Times about how technology is keeping us from that time to process.)
In the story, the government doesn’t have to try very hard to silence people’s thought – the people did it to themselves. The invention of television causes people to stop reading and talking to each other. The government then realizes how much more manageable people are when they stop thinking, and makes books illegal. No one minds enough to protest, aside from a small minority of academics. Television becomes “family” and people “interact” with it. People are happy and prosperous, and though there is a war going on, no one knows or cares much about it.
Beatty, the head fireman, explains the philosophy behind book-burning:
“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Somone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book… If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”
This book was published in 1953, and clearly many of the dire predictions of the book have not come true – in fact communication today is about as open as it could possibly be. We have the Internet, hundreds of private cable channels, regular and satellite radio, and any book we want, thanks to online and big box bookstores. More importantly, television hasn’t caused people to stop reading. Some even argue that the Internet enables us to read more.
At the same time, Bradbury’s concern about the television viewer as a passive non-thinker seems VERY relevant today. There’s no question that we watch television differently from the way we read, that we cease to interact in a meaningful way with each other, and that we soak up messages without really thinking about them. In Bradbury’s time, popular television was designed to soothe (e.g. Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver). Today it’s designed to shock. But I’m not sure it’s any different. Even when we watch horrifying things on television, we still turn the TV off and go about our day.
Sure, we can watch instructional television if we want to – but is there any real difference between watching a show like “Mythbusters” and watching “Real Housewives of New Jersey”? Maybe not according to Bradbury. Beatty explains that the government tries to “cram [people] full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely brilliant with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
In Fahrenheit’s world, communication was controlled by the government; today, there may be harm in having too many choices of media. More and more, we listen to whoever agrees with us, so rather than being exposed to objective sources of information, we have to pick and choose, and we generally choose whoever agrees with us. So you watch Fox News because you already share their viewpoint, and in turn they just keep reinforcing that viewpoint without offering multiple points of view. In a 2003 interview on the 50th anniversary of the book, Bradbury expresses the concern about television news deluding viewers, and I definitely agree.
I read Fahrenheit 451 in paper form, which is unusual for me these days, but it wasn’t available on the Kindle. In fact, Bradbury, who turned 90 this month, has vehemently rejected putting his books on the Kindle or other e-readers. Two weeks ago he told the LA Times “we have too many machines now.”
However, in the book Bradbury makes very clear that it’s not the format of the book that matters, it’s the thought process. When paper books aren’t available, the characters memorize the words so they can be reproduced later. One of the characters says “books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
Columnist Tom Horgen in the Minnesota Star Tribune recently made two complaints about e-readers. He says: “An e-book is not a book. A digital screen does not replace the feeling, the scent and the joy of turning the pages of a classic novel. That’s why I wouldn’t be caught dead using an e-reader…” While I get that people are attached to the feel of paper books (I personally love the dusty smell of old bookstores), we don’t read for the feel of the page, we read for the words, the thoughts, the meaning.
Horgen goes on to say “If the circumstances of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian future in “Fahrenheit 451” were to happen today, the government wouldn’t even have to burn books. They’d just press a button to delete them. That’s sad.” It’s true that Amazon has the power to remove books from our Kindles, as they did last year with an unauthorized copy of 1984. It’s a serious concern if there is only one e-publisher. But as long as there is competition, there is little difference between publication on an e-reader and regular print publication.
Censorship still exists. There are plenty of communities out there removing Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye from library bookshelves. But today’s censorship may lie more in the ability to pay for the books you want to read, since Amazon and other vendors allow us to buy pretty much anything we want, while libraries in schools and low-income neighborhoods are sadly underfunded and underused.
Bradbury’s fears of censorship may not have come to pass — but having read this amazing book I will definitely think more about what – and how – I watch television.