Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fahrenheit 451 Revisited: Do Firemen Still Dream of Igniting Books?

Fahrenheit 451"One last thing," said Beatty. "At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They're about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction. And if they're nonfiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost." -From Fahrenheit 451

Last July, after reading a notice of an American classic to be re-published as a graphic novel, I wrote a bit of commentary on Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 called Fahrenheit 451: "Digital" is the Fire in Which we Burn. I was lamenting the day when books were a serious form of entertainment and source of information, even during the advent of the age of television. Then I chanced upon Bradbury's novel at my local library and found myself wondering if I'd ever read it. I assumed I had, but I couldn't really remember. Well, there was one way to fix the problem.

This work was first published as a novel in 1953, the year before I was born. More than half a century later, this work still stands on solid legs, but perhaps not quite the legs that Bradbury first built for his book. The book isn't so much about censorship or even about television replacing books and other print media, as it is about the dumbing down of humanity. If the world of ideas and debate make people unhappy, take them away and replace them with the equivalent of Prozac for the masses. Let the government do the worrying. You don't have to concern yourself about a thing.

Fifty-six years later, the government isn't burning books, but there's a question as to whether or not they've been marginalized. While Bradbury unsuccessfully predicted interactive television in the home, with screens on all four walls (he did seem to capture flat-screened TVs, though), he couldn't have possibly imagined Cable and Satellite TV, iPods, eBooks, blogging, twitter, texting, YouTube, gaming, and the Internet (and on and on). We haven't replaced print with TV, we've replaced few information sources with many, and with sources that produce content in all its myriad forms, at a rate that accelerates faster than the dizzying velocities of the cars and jets of Montag's (the book's protagonist) world.

Whenever I go to the gym to work out, music is blaring, a dozen TV sets are tuned to a dozen TV channels, almost everyone working out is listening to their iPod, and in the midst of all that, some people are either talking or texting on their mobiles. I go to the gym to try and coax my middle-aged body into continued activity for an hour or so a day, and people can't seem to unplug for even that brief a period of time. If we aren't constantly bombarded with information and entertainment every waking second of the day, what would become of us? Would we actually have to suffer alone with our own thoughts? Would we actually have to relate to other human beings? Is this the "real" Fahrenheit 451?

Print isn't dead, it's just been transformed. This blog is one incarnation...one descendant of the magazine article or the newspaper editorial. The difference is that anyone can blog for little or not cost and for some, with little or no effort. When I want to write a book (yes, I still write real books), I have to write and submit a proposal to a publisher through my agent. The publishing staff evaluates my proposal to determine if it's worth their time and money to turn my idea into a book. That is, they have to decide if there are enough people who'll pay good money to buy what I want to write. Even if the proposal is approved, the book turns out to be a collaboration between me and the various editors I work with, so it's not just all my bright ideas on paper or in eBook format.

With blogging, anyone can write anything at anytime. Of course, no audience is guaranteed, but anyone might surf onto your blog and read whatever you've written. Feedback is instantaneous via the commenting system. The main reason I named my blog A Million Chimpanzees was out of the horrible thought that writing as an art has been reduced to the lowest common denominator because there's no limit to who can blog or what can be blogged. Of course, this is also the realization of freedom of speech. Any citizen can, at any time, without limitation, post his or her ideas and statements to the Internet where anyone with access can read them. Reduce the ideas to 140 characters at a time, and blogging becomes twitter. Digitally film them, and you've got YouTube. Podcast and streaming video them and, putting it all together, you've got the cacophony I was describing a few paragraphs back.

I'm still trying to decide whether this is a good thing or not, but from the point of view of Fahrenheit 451, I think it is. To write (or otherwise create), we are compelled to think. This is the antithesis of Montag's world, where his wife Mildred spends all day pretending to be a part of a fictional, interactive "family" on her favorite TV shows (and adding 21st century technology to the mix, the "family" could well have been computer generated, rather than real, human actors). When the day is done, she wanders off to sleep with her iPod in her ear (not really, but the way Bradbury presents it, the device might well have been an iPod). Entertainment parks abound, and schools are not to educate, but to indoctrinate the next generation into a population of entertainment junkies, even as the country is on the verge of nuclear war.

In Montag's world, people are moving in a single direction; from more to less complex thoughts and ideas. Reading and education are not only discouraged, they're illegal. Humans are not only encouraged to be mindless TV junkies, it's almost the only choice they're offered. We, on the other hand, seem to be going both ways simultaneously; a culture addicted to entertainment, and obsessed by information. What do we really want, a lobotomy, or a PhD? Then again, how much reading to we actually do on a single subject, before we bounce to the next input, and the next and the next and the...You get the idea. If it isn't short and it isn't fast, it isn't compelling enough to stick with. Change the channel or click the next link (does this sound cynical?).

One of the best parts of reading this book was reading Bradbury's commentary. He wrote about how he managed to write the novel, the origin of the ideas and the mechanics of the writing itself. He didn't own a typewriter (no PCs and word processors the 1950s), so he found what amounted to a "typewriter lab" in the basement of a building at UCLA. He could rent typewriter time for ten cents a half-hour and, with not so much as a spell checker or even a bottle of liquid paper, he set about to create his masterpiece. It's in the context of the early 1950s that Bradbury wrote the book, and being able to step outside the book itself, and into the motivation of the writer, I found another dimension to the story and some of the history of where we come from.

Ray Bradbury grew up in a world of books, in a world before television and, even though the film industry was thriving, in a world where the moving image couldn't displace the world of imagination contained within the printed page. I'm old enough to still prefer a "real" book over an eBook, and will still close my web browser to thumb through pages and enter the realm of print, on occasion. That's part of the allure, both of checking out books at the library and of reading books. Fortunately, I'm not alone. A few days ago, I came across a blog article at PBS.org called Kicking Ink: The Guilty Pleasures of Print. I couldn't help but see the parallels between the blog article and the future Bradbury imagined. Books aren't forbidden and burned in our world, but we are made to feel a little guilty about reading them because of the "carbon footprint" they leave behind. Political correctness and the advance of technology take the place of the firemen and their kerosene.

No, we don't burn books, and we don't necessarily disdain thinkers and writers, but is what we're writing (including this blog) worth reading? I hope at least some of it (including this blog) is, but what we produce is in danger of buried in the screaming snowstorm of all the digital content we're generating at warp speed and beyond. Ray Bradbury's novel, over fifty years old now, still has something to tell us. It might not be exactly the same as the original message, but it's close enough to be chilling, or maybe ironic.

All that said, time marches on, and so does the book's creator. You can even go to raybradbury.com these days and find out what he's currently writing.

Endnote: On a whim, I crafted part of the title of this article on Philip K Dick's book title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?...another novel where humanity, at least as we know it, is an endangered species.


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