When most people think of Ray Bradbury, they think of Fahrenheit 451, his famous novel of book-burning and censorship, the title referring to the temperature at which paper burns. When I was growing up I read mostly Bradbury’s short stories, of which he was a master, but I also read longer works such as The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes (which is better than the movie, though the movie does a decent job of it). By the time I hit my twenties I was already arguing for Something Wicked This Way Comes to be considered the Great American Novel, which no one agreed with because it’s a genre novel and genre novels, while popular (or perhaps because they are popular), don’t get much respect in literary circles. Ray Bradbury, who just passed away at age 91, lived long enough to get that respect. You may well be wondering why I didn’t champion Fahrenheit 451. I have a confession to make: I didn’t read it until I was an adult. In fact, I didn’t read it until a little over ten years ago. I knew about it: everyone knows about it. I think that knowledge is why reading it wasn’t a high priority. It so permeates the zeitgeist and has made its way so far into our cultural history that I already knew the story.
But here’s the thing that struck me when I finally read it, well, two things actually, but I’ll save the second for the end. The first thing that really struck me was that Bradbury had predicted giant flat screen TVs, video chat, social networks, and our near-constant plugged in state. All based on the advent of television and, I suppose, human nature.
Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, based on his story “The Fireman” which was published in 1951, the same year as “The Pedestrian” which also featured people who spent their evenings in their houses watching screens, which at the time I read it I presumed to be televisions because “The Pedestrian” was one of the stories I read in my youth, which was pre-computer. It doesn’t explicitly feature the interaction with people on the screens that occurs in Fahrenheit 451, but clearly by 1952-1953 Bradbury had already envisioned flat screen TVs with internet connectivity and online video chat…and the attraction of such social interaction. The destruction of the written word in Fahrenheit 451 goes hand in hand with these other developments. As put forth in “The Pedestrian”, what need have we of other things if we’ve got a screen? In both that story and Fahrenheit 451 deviants are those who don’t watch the screens, who live their lives away from screens, unplugged from the chatter of news, gossip and interactions. This has since been done to death in science fiction, but Bradbury, arguably, was there first.
Fahrenheit 451 is more than just a dystopian novel of an authoritarian society where books are banned and burned and people who read them are criminals. It’s also uncanny prognostication about technology and how we use it. When it was written telephones had cords and rotary dials, switchboard operators were necessary to put calls through. The telegraph was still in use. Television was this new amazing thing. Everyone had a radio, but not everyone had a television. I did some looking around online and found these pics of televisions in 1951. From something like that, with a few variety and news programs Bradbury extrapolated 21st century technology.
People often think of Ray Bradbury as representing more the fantasy end of science fiction, filled as his works are with nostalgic flights of fancy and magical occurrences, nevertheless, he predicted the tech we live with today and predicted how we’d use it, too. I just hope that his vision of how we’d use technology to the exclusion everything that isn’t on a screen is a flight of fancy and not a vision of humanity’s future isolation.
Now an addendum on the second thing that that struck me upon reading Fahrenheit 451. The Book People. I have, since reading the book, given very serious thought to what book would be my book if I were one of the Book People. I think one has to live a certain number of years, to read and reread a certain number of things before settling on a Book. My dilemma is that I can’t decide between two, so I won’t. My books would be Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Hamlet by William Shakespeare. (Yes, I know, in a world such as Bradbury postulates those popular titles would surely already be committed to memory by someone. But let’s leave that aside. This is a personal exercise.) Choosing very popular books seems a bit cliched, but I have very specific personal reasons for choosing them and I think that if one had to choose a book which would be committed to memory, if one were to become a book’s keeper, a living embodiment of a book, then the book needs to be a book that is special to that person, not necessarily a book that’s a great book. As it happens my choices are generally acknowledged as great books, but that’s not why I chose them. I chose them because I’ve read them more than any other books, over and over again. I don’t even know how many times, but I can recite large chunks of both off by heart simply from the repetition of reading them so many times.
You don’t hear people say that they know something “by heart” very often any more. People are more likely to say they’ve memorized something or that they remember a poem, etc. Memorizing, to me, implies an active choice to commit something to one’s memory. It requires effort. Knowing something “by heart” or being able to recite something “by heart” implies an intimate familiarity with the material. It means that it’s something dear to you and you know it because it’s dear. You know it because of this intimate familiarity and you cultivated this familiarity because you love it.
The Book People in Fahrenheit 451 have limited access to texts: they take what they can get and they memorize it, but this too is an act of love because they are saving the life of a book, saving a story from oblivion.
I fear sometimes that with our move to ebooks that there are good books that will be lost. There are public domain books available from Project Gutenberg as well as other online sources and there are contemporary ebooks being published, but there are millions of books that fall into the gap between those two. Many of my other favorite books aren’t available as ebooks because they are out of print, the author — or translator — has passed away long before digital rights were written into contracts, and some books written originally in languages other than English would need new translators in order to be brought forward into the digital age. I hope publishers will make the effort to track down who has the rights, or manages the estate of deceased authors, to get digital rights contracts for out of print, hard to find, and foreign rights translations of works that fall into the gap between public domain and current works, lest we, too, have to save decaying paper copies of good books by becoming Book People.