When a man dies his words adopt a weight they previously did not own, and this is certainly no different regarding the written word. This month, popular author Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. Having heard of this, I naturally thought to myself that I should read one of his works. About a week or two later, my sister mentioned the book Farenheit 451, and after reading an article on Bradbury in a magazine, I decided to see what the book was all about.
Bradbury was born in 1920 and lived a life that was highly skeptical of modern technology He chose to never obtain a driver’s license, ride elevators, or type on a computer, instead using a typewriter. In 2009 he declared the internet to be “a big distraction,” and though most of his writings regard future worlds, he proclaimed, “I’m not a futurist. People ask me to predic the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” It is this same “barbaric” spirit which illuminates the pages of Farenheit 451, his most beloved novel. After spending $9.80 ($84.35 accounting for inflation) on a typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library in 1953 (inserting a dime every half hour), he had the pleasure, or the displeasure, of seeing his prophetic words unfold before his eyes in the years to come. Recently, I read he did not care for e-books and, with all this information on the man, was prompted me to read this novel the old fashioned way. It did not cost $9.80.
The novel was greatly appreciated but not for the traditional reasons this blog appreciates books. In fact, this novel lacked any of the characteristics I love: an insistence on detail, perceiving character actions from different perspectives, humor, satire, fantastic explanations of extremely mundane activities etc. But I still enjoyed the book, for it was, in my argument, the story of how Guy Montag was enlightened by literature and thinking, two of my favorite hobbies. Montag lives in a future world that burns books to keep its citizens ignorant and “happy” watching T.V. Montag is a fireman, and the irony of it all is thick throughout. After a shift at work, he meets a young girl, Clarisse, who sparks the flame that begins Montag’s upward climb to enlightenment. She begins to make Montag think, and this whole theory of thinking about things, questioning, and analyzing details is addicting to our hero. For he begins to question things, and yet the questions fell flat on his wife who is sucked into the world of T.V. parlors (a room in the house with televisions on each wall). His insistence in his questions and observations is focused on this concept of “how the world was before”: Billboards were smaller because people drove slower, houses were not always fire proof, people used to sit on porches and just talk.
The tipping point comes when Montag witnesses a woman go down in flames with her books. This puts him over the edge as he declares, “There must be something in books, things we cannot imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” The saddest, or most frustrating, character flaw for Montag is that he is too ignorant to understand the books. Even when he begins to read, he does not understand. It is the argument that Bradbury is making through the fire chief Captain Beaty who explains to Montag why they burn books.
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. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it… Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible 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. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy… So bring your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with Theremin loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.
And the entertainment driven society that Montag inhabits drowns its citizens. They become robots to the system taking in what makes them feel good for the moment disregarding the long term effects. No one in Montag’s world considers doing anything that has momentary pain or intellectual hardship but that produces a pleasure far exceeding the little trifles in which everyone was indulging.
And despite the frustration of a novel with a hero who cannot critically think for himself, our protagonist fights anyway thanks in large part to Faber, an old former English professor who has no job in this world. Faber teaches Montag why literature is superior to the T.V. parlors. First, it gives quality.
And what does the word quality mean? [asks Faber]. To me it means texture. It has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are.
Secondly, books require leisure. And what Faber means by this is the leisure to think. For surely modern society has leisure enough. But to sit and think, this cannot be done with the T.V. screaming at you. But with a book, “You play God to it.” You have the option to question. In fact, the time for a book allows you to stop and think before proceeding, and before one mentions TiVo, I would ask when the last time it was someone used the pause button to think about what was being said. Thirdly, Faber says books give us the right to carry out our actions which come about from the last two points. No man can begin a revolution watching T.V. He can certainly follow one. But to begin one, he must know both sides and better yet how to argue both sides. This is best formed in intellectual reading.
To end, we are met with Bradbury’s exquisite prose that he used to introduce his world as Clarisse discreetly ignited the flame that eventually caused an incredible mess. May it be true of us as we seek to honor Mr. Bradbury. I find it refreshing that someone practiced what he preached to some degree. The question I return to from reading this novel: was it always that way? I have had a television my entire life. Must I be required to always have one? There was a time when man was man, and the moment was the moment, space was space. He saw no necessity in it being any other way because life was when and where he was. The grass at his feet, the flowers beside the oak trees as birds sang in their branches and clouds maneuvered their way over to cry on his shoulder. The idea of it being something else would not have entered his mind for their was nothing to incite such a thought. And the beautiful woman by his side was by his side because she was by his side, and for that reason, he needed no one else. For no one else was offering him their time much to his joy in begetting the freedom to be with this woman, this person, this fellow human, the soul that “hung ‘twixt her and me” whom he could cherish at the present time and space. And if he was incited towards anything outside that time and space, it would be in a written word, and what is a written word but a thought on a page conceived by the imagination? Imaginative thoughts scratched hard enough may produce a spark hot enough to ignite a flame — and oh what a great forest is set ablaze by so small a flame!