Monday, April 20, 2009

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Almost exactly a year ago, I saw Ray Bradbury speak from his wheelchair on UCLA's campus, not more than a few hundred yards where he composed Fahrenheit 451 around 1950. Fifty-eight years later, aged 87 or so, Bradbury remained vivacious despite his being mostly confined to a wheelchair (he did stand for a moment at the beginning as if to bow, and he wore his large medal from France), which is a testament to the good that California can do for a person's health. But I saw him speak because he was the biggest name at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (I missed Gore Vidal due to poor planning and underestimation of his popularity--which I still deeply regret), and it is still remarkable to me how many people crowded into that "Agent's Voices" panel discussion, and sad to remember that David Foster Wallace's agent had been one of the three. More on that here (and note rogue typo along with now-embarassing tirade) and here (and note the error of the author's age).

I had been meaning to read Fahrenheit 451 for somewhere around the last ten years. One of my now ex-coworkers told me he had read it for school in sixth grade. Is it written for sixth graders? It could be understood by them. The content is not objectionable. It's a vaguely subversive book that is meant to inspire revolt against an increasingly complacent future without complex ideas. It's probably a good book for junior high and high school students. As a college student, I should have included it in my independent study on the political novel in the 20th century. I would excise the portions about the comparison between All the King's Men and Primary Colors (though I was attempting to show there are only 2 kinds of political novels--the first a re-imagination of society as we know it, the second a novel "about politics") and compare 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

First of all, while I enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, found it breezy, entertaining, funny, bizarre, and moving at times, it doesn't stretch to the heights of Orwell's or Huxley's masterworks. Orwell has telescreens, nonstop surveillance, Big Brother, a whole totalitarian political agenda realized. Huxley has soma, three classes of human beings, "feelies," hypnopaedic conditioning, and vacations to exotic places like Utah. Bradbury has the mechanical hound (potentially the star of the novel), "seashell" headphones, VW beetles that go 100 MPH everywhere, outlaw English professors, and firemen who start fires instead of putting them out. While Orwell and Huxley are making larger societal critiques, Bradbury sticks to one subject: books.

Now, here is one area where Huxley and Bradbury can converge: the arrival of the Kindle, perhaps the most evil instrument of technology to have been invented yet. Let me qualify that statement: it's not all bad--people will still be reading, at least, and writers will simply have to accept a new form of payment for their production, a la iTunes for musicians. I don't believe file-sharing will have an adverse effect on authors, and I don't believe libraries will cease to exist. I worry that people will start looking at little screens more often than they already do--Blackberry, iPhone, iPod (the only nicety I am guilty of having--but who doesn't!), Nintendo DS (not so different from Gameboy now some 20 odd years old), Facebook all the time, whatever it is that Twitter is, and on and on...--perhaps there's nothing WRONG with it, per se, but as someone that doesn't do all that stuff, I feel very left behind on this whole cultural revolution stuff--and feel that it is too expensive and not worth the effort for a person like me. I do feel left out, but I don't feel that these gadgets would improve my life anymore. But this isn't about me--this is about book burning.

Sure, six years before this book was written, Nazi Germany burned books, and that's the clearest precedent here: remove information so as to best manipulate the masses. I do not know how America could become like that. There were various restrictions on Google in China, I seem to recall, a few years back. It doesn't seem like Bradbury's warning is all that necessary (that said, it still makes for a compelling narrative). It appears that his spiritual cousin of the telescreen, "the walls" of the living room, where Mildred (main character Guy Montag's wife) spends most of her time, are the sole source of entertainment, and that they include a "family" that the viewer feels they are a part of--not so different from the way people get attached to TV shows, and pretty sharp of Bradbury to portray at the dawn of the television age:

"'When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I'd say it really got started around a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn't get along well until photography came into its own. Then--motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.'
Montag sat in bed, not moving.
'And because they had mass, they became simpler,' said Beatty. 'Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm, do you follow me?'
'I think so.'
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. 'Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.'
'Snap ending,' Mildred nodded.
'Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more." (54-55)

So that is one reason--people don't have the time to read, so books are no longer necessary. But burnt so they can never be read? That is an effect, as Beatty later explains, of not wanting to weigh two sides of an issue:

"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead, he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country." (59-60)
"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 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. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won't be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I've tried it; to hell with it. So bring on 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 the theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile raction (Ed: note proofreading error--s/b 'reaction') to vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment." (61)

This reminds me of people at my first job in California who would be like, "You're so good, you read a lot." They wish they had the time to read. It's not a worthwhile pursuit since they have so many other things they need to take care of and worry about. Leisure time is better spent in front of the television where you can quantify how long you are going to be free from other activity--not like the unpredictability of book, which depends on your doing a lot more work.

Should I give away the plot? Guy Montag meets a girl named Clarisse who questions everything about their society--he sort of even gets a crush on her, though she is 17 and he is married--and so he starts questioning everything. His wife Mildred is thoroughly drugged out and at her first appearance, has just attempted suicide by sleeping pills. Elsewhere in the novel she shows practically zero sign of depression. Beatty is the fire captain, who acts like the character of Mustapha Mond in Brave New World or O'Brien in 1984, who explains the society and therefore provides the most compelling moments.

After writing this review, I feel like Fahrenheit 451 is more important than I initially gave it credit for, and is perhaps closer to society in 2009 than either Huxley's or Orwell's works. It's not as extremely different as the other two. But I feel like, Orwell and Bradbury are clearly against their societies, whereas Huxley is less transparent in his aims. For me, Huxley is the most prophetic of the three, particularly since his book was also the earliest, and has been able to see clearly some 70 years into the future. Bradbury does anticipate the loneliness and isolation of our times, but that is less his motive than to argue in favor of literature, not unlike John the Savage in Brave New World who wants poetry, pain, sadness, everything, which causes Mustapha Mond to reply, "You are reserving the right to be unhappy." Orwell's might be the greatest novel of the three, but Huxley's is the wildest vision, and the most compelling for its sheer imaginative quality. Bradbury belongs right alongside them. History will treat this book as kindly as it does the other two, and let us hope that at least one of the three will be read for generations to come--whether on Kindle or paper.

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