Celebrated author Ray Bradbury made a small splash in the headlines this week by announcing that he"s been badly misunderstood--even by his most devoted readers--and the record needs to be set straight. At issue is the authorial intent of his best known work Fahrenheit 451. See, for decades, people have been reading 451 and taking away from the experience that Bradbury had penned a masterful cautionary tale about the state-sponsored censorship of books. As it turns out, at least according to Bradbury, everyone who thought that was hopelessly wrong.
It's easy to see where a reader may have been confused. After all, one of the big reasons Fahrenheit 451 seems, on the surface, to be a novel about the state-sponsored censorship of books is the way in which the novel tells the story of...uhm...a dystopian society that has mandated the state sponsored censorship of books. Also, the way the main character, Guy Montag, goes around burning books, as if it were his job. Which it is. Also, the way he punitively burns the homes and possessions of book-owning scofflaws, which is also part of his job. Also, the way the "state" seems to implicitly allow Montag to do this, as if to say, "Burn those books. We like state-sponsored censorship."
Also: the way books play a major role in Montag's eventual conversion and downfall, the way he falls in with a group of people who have memorized books so as to avoid persecution, the way in which after an apocalyptic war, the survivors decide to rebuild the world and leave out the whole book burning thing. Also: the title, which specifically, and apocryphally, references the temperature at which paper burns.
I could go on. But, let's take Bradbury at his word: Fahrenheit 451 is not about any of these things, in spite of the fact that all of the aforementioned themes and events take center stage of the story. What, then, is Fahrenheit 451 about? The numbing, idiocratizing effect of television. Specifically, "a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature."
Uhm, okay. Fair enough. There is copious mention in the novel about the dark role of television. In the novel, the teevees are referred to as "walls," and they project programmed pabulum--insipid stories featuring characters that are widely referred to as being part of the viewer's "family." The images are readily memorable, but--and take this for what it's worth, as I am a decade past my last reading of the book itself--I recall the mentions of television to be little more than window dressing for dystopia.
According to Bradbury, however, the television angle is the crucial one, and that everything he had to say about it back then is coming to pass now:
"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV's content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids." He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.
His fear in 1953 that television would kill books has, he says, been partially confirmed by television's effect on substance in the news. The front page of that day's L.A. Times reported on the weekend box-office receipts for the third in the Spider-Man series of movies, seeming to prove his point.
"Useless," Bradbury says. "They stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full."
Certainly, in citing the television news, Bradbury lands a very palpable touch. The cable news environment has become something of a "wall"--insensately scrolling context-less "factoids" into the void. Plenty of critics have observed the dumbing-down of the news. Truly, it is arguable that news content often seems trapped in its own insipid formula for faux-objectivity (or in an objectively formulaic state insipidity), pundits far and wide are allowed to promulgate unbending tautological cant as a substitute for thought, and nonsensical, non-newsworthy items suck away vital newsgathering resources.
Heck, watching these candidate debates, we can sympathize with Ray. How did we get to the point where asking would-be Presidents to engage in grade school shows of hands--"Raise your hand if you believe in evolution...heliocentricity...the female orgasm..."--is allowed to be passed off as being probative? And, frankly, how is it possible that a man who wants to be President can profess a preference for sorcery over science and not be subject to an immediate, on-camera excoriation? Truly, there is much in the realm of the television news fingered by Bradbury that is a toxic insult to the rational mind.
But, that said, I have to say that if I were a more sinister, cynical observer, I might wonder if Bradbury is engaging in a little authorial revision to suit the times in which he lives now. Because, as noted, Fahrenheit 451 really does seem to have books on the brain. And, what shall we make of the addendum Bradbury himself added to the novel in 1979:
"There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse....Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever."
... "Only six months ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place."
Seems to me that this wouldn't be an "exquisite irony" were censorship not a part of the novel itself. But, perhaps, Bradbury was as momentarily confused by the intent of the novel as he makes us all out to be now.
Perhaps a more trenchant question however, is: is Ray Bradbury correct? Has television eviscerated our brains? Has the cable news led us, inexorably, away from reading literature? Is the fact that we refer to the characters on Lost by their first names, as if we were chums with them, a sign of advancing societal senility? Steven Berlin Johnson would likely disagree. In his book, Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Johnson convincingly argues that the evolving complexity of media entertainment actually hits our brains right in the sweet spot--promoting probative thought, enhancing our appreciation for complex narratives, training our problem-solving skills and encouraging content users to break away from the screen and engage others in communities of discussion.
We could really benefit from getting these two men in a room together, and maybe even broadcasting their debate on the television.