Today, August 22, is Ray Bradbury’s birthday. I can’t think of a better time to revisit Bradbury’s most famous work, Fahrenheit 451.
For me the most intriguing thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that it’s what I’d call an adolescent dreamer’s story. By that I mean the book is something that young teens read, and then latch onto the perceived surface ideals. It feeds the notion that those in charge are trying to tell you what to think, and if you’re not careful some time in the near future state sponsored censorship will become the norm. It’s the same mentality of those who erroneously think Catcher in the Rye is about a kid who bucked the system. The irony in both cases is that we, the young teens reading these stories, are the phonies.
Released in the early 50’s, when television was first starting to become significant, 451 was oddly prescient and pessimistic about what TV had to offer society. What I’ve never understood is the way in which so many people claim to love the anti-censorship message of the story, but fail to notice it’s we TV watchers who are the villains. Society, by turning from the printed word towards television, brought about the dystopian world of book burning firemen. Guy didn’t hide books to stick it to the state; he hid them because they offered the power of knowledge.
The idea that television, or the internet for that matter, will someday turn mankind into oblivious automatons is short sighted. The kid walking down the street texting on his cell phone is not a capricious youth; he’s just connected to his network of friends in a new way, a way that is misunderstood by the elder generation. This is not a bad thing, it’s just new. Those who brag that they don’t have a TV because they don’t see the value in it, are not as impressive as they seem. There’s nothing to gain by willfully ignoring an avenue for gaining knowledge based on unfounded bias.
The truth is that in today’s world, with hundreds of cable channels and millions of websites, the themes of 451 are more resonant than ever. The issue I have with the short novel is that it draws the wrong conclusions. Modern media will not kill books; as is evidenced by the mega success of series’ like Twilight and Harry Potter. Nor will it turn society into a brain dead swarm, willing to do whatever they’re told. TV has nothing on books when it comes to mindless entertainment. For every To Kill A Mockingbird there are a hundred Twilights. There are more books that aren’t worth your time than minutes of television used up on the Kardashians. Don’t laud the novel’s superiority over other forms of entertainment without first realizing that the pile of crap extends back a few hundred years.
Ideologically I just can’t get behind Fahrenheit 451 as an adult who understands all that television has to offer. Tell me that the episode of Firefly titled “Out of Gas” isn’t one of the best sci-fi stories told in the last 20 years, and I’ll slap your face for insolence. Television, movies, and the internet have not made mankind dumber or more disconnected. We’ve never lived as a species in such a globally charged world as we do now; and it’s because we took our nose out of the book and plugged in. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go re-read some Heinlein on my Kindle.