“The house will crumble and the books will burn” – Wallace Stevens
Lovers of books almost invariably love the past; books allow us to audit a conversation that drowns even the roar of time, one that stretches backward in form from Epub to paper to to the gossipy sagas on the side of Egyptian obelisks, and maybe to those fantastic graphic novels on the walls of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira. Those who read inherit the memories of centuries; those who don’t read are impoverished amnesiacs, perpetually confused by a present without explanation and void of history.
At one point in Suzanne Collins’ “Mockingjay”, Katniss Everdeen joins Star Squad 451. What is that, if not the extension of a conversation with a past master? I mentioned this to a friend and she wasn’t exactly impressed by the easy allusion. Any modern dystopian writer who goes about unaware of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is bound to look foolish.
The premise of “Fahrenheit 451” is simply nightmarish in its thankfully far-fetched conceit: in a society ruled by ever-bigger television screens and ever-shrinking attention spans, no one bothers with books.
This is a world that aims to have “all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused,” (as the TV-executive character played by Ned Beatty says in Sidney Lumet’s “Network.”) Into this world, fire-spewing hose in hand, comes Guy Montag, a firefighter whose pleasurable task involves burning the little paper boxes and the pesky, subversive thoughts they contain.
A platonic series of exchanges with a pensive pixie girl called Clarisse introduces Montag to poetry, and leads him to look twice at the life through which he has sleep-walked; at Mildred, the wife who pops pills mindlessly while staring at the television walls; at Beatty (no relation to Ned), the seemingly genial boss who boasts of a Mechanical Hound that can track down any and all dissenters.
Lovers of books shiver at the idea of the pages of Shakespeare and Dante and the book of Ecclesiastes being blown away into black butterflies. “We must burn the books. ALL the books,” says mad Beatty in the Francois Truffaut movie adaptation. Truffaut adds a smart, challenging flourish that isn’t in the novel: Beatty raises a copy of Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
While most sane people would agree that the burning of “Don Quixote” signifies a bigger literary loss than that of “Mein Kampf,” I find that moment to be perfectly in spirit with Bradbury’s message: the society that throws “Mein Kamp” to the flames is only prepping itself for a dark re-write. “Fahrenheit 451” is an anti-war book. It was published in 1953, so the shadows of the camps and the atomic mushrooms loom large over these pages. Bradbury sees every book written, every poetic expression, as an admittedly unheeded reminder to NOT kill ourselves.
One of the last book lovers in Bradbury’s dystopia sums things up:
“We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steam-shovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up.”
Without books, we keep on forgetting, living like that amnesiac unplugged from the past. When I first read a sneak-copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” I was a child growing up in a Communist country, and heard the anti-censorship message loud and clear. The book, while not zealously banned by the government like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or “1984”, was “frowned upon”: a teacher confiscated it from me and checked with the school principal to make sure the book wasn’t “counter-revolutionary.” But I read it now, and I DON’T think Bradbury intended it primarily as an anti-censorship book, at least not as practiced by some shadowy government. It’s more about an internal intellectual laziness. The power to read – and think, and remember- is happily and voluntarily given up by a people who do not, as a rule, care for the prickly intricacies of thought.
What the people always want is panem et circenses.
We as a nation don’t read as much as we used to, and aside from a few cultural centers, the masses look upon the rare reader with suspicion or alarm. I know. I indulge in the eccentricity of public literacy, and have been approached plenty of times in a sad re-enactment of the Bill Hicks joke:
“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. (I’m not proud of it, I was hungry). And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why DO I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”
That may sound mean, but there is also a lot of contempt in Bradbury’s novel for the unwashed masses who don’t care for Alexander Pope or Matthew Arnold.
So much has been said in praise of “Fahrenheit 451” from fans as unlikely as Harold Bloom and Kingsley Amis (who finds it superior to George Orwell’s “1984” in objectivity) that I want to point out the book’s sourness to keep things in balance. Bradbury is in prophetic William Blake mode here, railing against the Dark Satanic Mills, except his beef isn’t with industry but with…television and minorities.
Yeah, you remember the reactionary rant against television. But you didn’t remember that part about the MINORITIES, did you? Neither did I.
Yessir. It was the MINORITIES who called for the book-burning. We burnt “Huck Finn” and “Little Sambo” to please the colored folks. Mormons, Unitarians, cat-lovers and Brooklynites (read: kikes) are some of the other whiny factions that Bradbury suggests want to be constantly appeased with bonfires and controversy-avoiding pap on television. Mustn’t offend the minorities!
He’s being a little tongue-in-cheek, of course, and has the incendiary anti-minority rant delivered by the Scripture-Quoting-Devil that is Beatty, but one can’t discount Bradbury’s argument entirely. Minorities ARE quicker to take offense precisely because they are more frequently the subject of offences. They’re historically vulnerable, so they’re sensitive to insult in ways the powerful don’t need to be. But I will say this: the minorities are the ones that produce the art, the controversy, the dissent. Minorities don’t want to censor the majorities – as if they COULD! What the minorities want to do is ADD their voices to the narrative. No: the blame for mediocre entertainment lies by and large with the majority.
As for television: Yes, 1953 television was indeed lame. That owed more to the tottering calf state of the nascent technology than to any intellectual limitations of the medium. As someone quite capable of being moved by both “Wuthering Heights” and “Twin Peaks,” and splitting time between the two, I don’t see how a good, smart TV show isn’t a better addition to our communal consciousness than a dumb, mediocre novel – and there’s plenty of those. But Bradbury has no problem metaphorically burning TV sets, (every time a wall unit goes off in “Fahrenheit 451” we’re meant to cheer in triumph or relief). Ray WOULD eventually have his own long-running TV show, so he must have recanted at some point.
Still, “Fahrenheit 451” doesn’t even qualify as science-fiction anymore. If there is a war between TV and books, TV is the successful invader. The extensive bookshelves that took up a wall on any civilized home shrunk and disappeared. Slowly, the books got taken down, put in boxes, buried in closets, or quietly thrown in dumpsters. They were replaced by the shiny progressive Aryan promise of VHS, DVDs and then BluRays.
Then the small bookstores that supplied our neighborhoods with all those dangerous thoughts got muscled aside by the big corporate bookstores, (those coffee-shilling impostors where vapid, “inspirational,” Oprah-approved books-that-wished-they-were-movies were guaranteed a spot at the front), and then even those bookstores went out of business altogether.
Now the scattered, exiled books are assaulted on the street, accused of political or intellectual or religious dubiousness. Sometimes even their ecological commitment is questioned: they’re tree-killers! The ones that want to survive have to submit to humiliating robotic make-overs, so they can pass for “epubs” and “mobis.” They slink around in their new formless, shapeless shame. They wait to be downloaded, then deleted. Don’t cry for them. They are already dead.
As for the rest of the books, they’ve already been rounded up, branded in the spine, sent to the very last libraries. You can find them huddled together, concentrated in their sad dusty bunks. Few of us dare visit them. They get thinner. Some nights, entire shelves disappear. No one asks where all the knowledge is going.
I dread the final solution.