With the sad death of the great Ray Bradbury earlier this year, I decided to reread some of his works that I haven’t read in a while, beginning with the classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. For those of you who haven’t read it… first, shame on you. Second, it’s about a future where people have grown intellectually soft, subsisting on brainless television programs and avoiding books and other intellectual pursuits until, finally, books are actually banned and firemen are repurposed to burn homes where books are being kept rather than extinguishing fires.
I’m certainly not arrogant enough to review this book, but I will discuss it. The book is often called as a commentary on censorship, although Bradbury himself denied that was his intention, saying instead he was trying to make a point about people allowing themselves to be absorbed by television. Reading the book now, for the first time in many years, I think it’s easy to see the intent here. The wife of Guy Montag, our protagonist, is where the most potent criticism comes. She spends all her time lost in a world where three of her walls are televisions and she laments the fact that the fourth isn’t yet. She thinks of TV characters as “family,” and she and her friends casually discuss people’s deaths, divorces, suicides, and think of their children as disposable creatures, no more important than the “family” that appears on the screens when they want them and go away when they’re done.
The thing that really gets to me, more than ever, is just how prescient this book is. The implication is that when people turn away from intellectual pursuits, they lose their perspective and compassion for other creatures. And I see that. When I look at students who steadfastly refuse to read a book, I’m not surprised to see those same students in trouble for disrespect, profanity, fighting, and generally displaying a lack of respect or concern for other people. (I don’t just mean kids who don’t like reading here, I mean the ones who fight it as though it will do them physical harm. Yes, they exist.)
Bradbury paints a picture of a world where books are abandoned and, when they’re finally banned, the Firemen are basically there to clean up the last few stragglers, a place where newspapers die out and nobody cares. And then there was one last thing I read today that chilled my blood, the most terrifying prophecy of all. From Faber, Montag’s friend who helps him find his way to a different path:
“And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.”
“Passionate lips and the fist in the stomach.”
That’s right, people. Way back in 1951, Bradbury predicted 50 Shades of Grey.