Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fahrenheit 451: "Digital" is the Fire in Which We Burn

NPR News just published a story called Reimagining 'Fahrenheit 451' As A Graphic Novel. Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors and Fahrenheit 451 has got to be one of his all-time classics. In the first moment or two, when I started to read the article's title, I thought Bradbury's novel was going to be made into a film again. The 1966 film version starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie is definitely showing it's age. I also think that the film could be updated to express the current crisis that books as a medium are facing and the crisis we're facing as a culture. Maybe the graphic novel will serve this purpose. No, as far as I can tell, no one is warming up their bonfires and flame throwers and getting ready to burn down my local library, but something equally ominous but far more subtle threatens books. It used to be television, but T.V. was more the downfall of radio as the primary form of family home entertainment. Books and libraries continued to flourish after the T.V. became ubiquitous in homes all over the world. I'm not even really talking about the Internet as "the threat", although it (is the Internet an "it"?) is a large part of the problem as I see it (and I'm not about to go offline). just posted a story called What If: The New New York Times which is the latest in a series of stories chronicling the demise of print newspapers as a primary information source. I don't take a paper anymore, and I sometimes register surprise when I see those classic rubber band wrapped bundles sitting patiently on driveways in my neighborhood as dawn breaks, waiting to be opened and consumed. Seeing those waiting papers, I find myself wondering about the future of the book? Will I live long enough to see its decline? Will my grandson grow up in a world without books? I mentioned before that I didn't think it was "just" the Internet that was signalling the next (metaphorically speaking) rampage of book burning. It's the entire concept and operationalization of "digital". The computing world is, to the current generation, what T.V. was to mine, but even more so. T.V. in the 1960s, offered a meager three channels. With no VCRs or TiVo, you were forced to watch a particular show on it's scheduled day and time. If you missed it, you could only hope to catch it during the summer reruns. Television's hold on the individual was thus limited and outside the range of prime time, there were still plenty of other ways to kill time as a kid, including reading. Today, the web, gaming (online and offline), the huge expansion of cable and satellite T.V., and all of the myriad other forms of digital entertainment, both subtle and gross, are available without any apparent limits, and additional forms are being created at an alarming rate. I'm not an advocate of killing the microchip and turning the clock back 40 or 50 years (although there are days...), but I do worry about what we are losing in our light-speed race to the farthest reaches of the "Information Age". In one way, T.V. of the 1960s and the Digital Revolution of the early 21st Century are alike, in that both forms of entertainment and information transfer are mentally easier than reading. Different neural pathways are accessed, formed, and established using one versus the other and yes, as a kid, it was easier to zombie out in front of shows like Gunsmoke and Dragnet than to sit down and read Treasure Island or 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, I've been an avid reader ever since elementary school, and books have always taken me more places than T.V. ever could. Is that about to end? I know what you're thinking. What about Kindle? Books aren't dead, they're just being reformatted. Perhaps. It looks like I can buy a Kindle for about $200. I know they have a lot of advantages, but one of the disadvantages is that I can check out a print book from the library for free. I can buy a used book for a rather modest fee, and if I drop a print book on the floor or sidewalk, it won't shatter. I can't stop progress. I can't even slow it down. My existence, or lack thereof, on this planet won't make any difference to how information is created, transmitted, and stored. That doesn't matter, though. This is more (I hope) than just about me, though I'm using myself as the lens through which to view the issue at hand. Through that lens, I see something a little magical about a print book, that no other form of media seems to communicate. Even the smell of an old book has an allure, more so to me than that "new car" smell of some racy auto purchased fresh off the lot. Opening a book is like opening up the door to another world. I can't say that I'm afraid of about how information dissemination can be controlled more easily in a digital form than in a print form. Mainstream print media has slanted the news since it's inception (and just how long ago was the term yellow journalism coined). Lady Chatterley's Lover was once banned as obscene (though if you read it today, you'd be heard pressed to understand why), so I can't say that books represent uncensored literary expression. My argument isn't based on control of information. In fact, the Internet is probably the last wild environment for the expression of ideas. Anyone who can buy a domain name and access a web host can post a website or blog to the web. It's infinitely easier to express yourself to a mass audience (assuming you can attract one) than if you had to rely solely on print. Does my argument at best, come down to nostalgia? It could. Just the words "Fahrenheit 451" recall a bygone era. The premise of burning books in Bradbury's novel, was to control information. The film version made it clear that television was to be favored more than books because the Government controlled the population through what they saw and heard on T.V. The Government doesn't have to burn books to control information; they just have to offer more compelling information and entertainment sources. One good video game will knock all the books off a 12 year old's shelf forever. Sitting here blogging, it occurs to me that what books have over everything else, isn't more freedom of information, or even more access, but more time. Digital means fast and who doesn't want to access more data and more fun at an increasingly faster rate? After all, there are only so many minutes in a day, and you want to make every one of them count, right? By comparison, reading is slow. It takes up time. It causes you to generate more mental effort. But what's wrong with that? As wonderful as the Lord of the Rings films were, can anyone who's ever read the J.R.R. Tolkien novels really say that the films could replace the books? Yes, it takes more time to read the novels than to watch the film versions, but so what? There's also a ton more information, charm, and nuance, that can be expressed in the books that will never see the light of day on film. A terrific as the special effects were using modern technology, readers a generation ago and more could conjure up dwarves, elves, and dragons at least as fantastic and substantial in the realm of the imagination. For me, it comes down to the loss of personal effort and involvement in what you consume when it's in a "byte-sized" format as opposed to what you get when you actually read. I love films and am sort of an amateur student of older films and T.V. shows. I spend an inordinate amount of time online compared to what my wife thinks I should. It's not like I disdain the modern world and what it offers, but I don't see the benefit of using what we now have to replace the "old fashioned" book. Many of my books sit on shelves (and are stacked on my desk, with a few on the floor) in the same room as my PCs. They co-exist. I sometimes sit in front of the monitor and sometimes in a chair in the living room with a book in my lap. They both have a place in my mind, my heart, and my life. I'm glad to see the cautionary tale of Fahrenheit 451 being renewed and preserved as a graphic novel. If someone is willing to publish Bradbury's novel in the modern age, it could mean someone sees the world in the same way I do. Someone sees a world where continuing to have books is valuable and sees a world that perhaps is threatening their existence. Books are so many things including a window to the past. Not just in what they contain, but in what they are as an object and what reading is as a process. They are part of the history, intellect, and imagination of humanity. If we lost books, we'd lose something of ourselves; something that no digital information type could ever replace. Rant over.