Ray Bradbury And The Real Lesson Of Fahrenheit 451

I note, as did Steven Taylor did this morning, the news that Science Fiction author Ray Bradbury has passed away at the age of 91. It’s a sad day if only because Bradbury was the last of the great Sci-Fi authors from the genre’s beginning era in the 1950s and 60s. All the others, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein, left us long ago. It also reminded me of a story from way back in 2007 about how Bradbury had become increasingly upset over the years over what he contended was the misinterpretation of one of his greatest works, Fahrenheit 451:

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. It is widely taught in junior high and high schools and is for many students the first time they learn the names Aristotle, Dickens and Tolstoy.

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.

This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.

Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

“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.

(…)

He says the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state — it is the people. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an opiate. In the book, Bradbury refers to televisions as “walls” and its actors as “family,” a truth evident to anyone who has heard a recap of network shows in which a fan refers to the characters by first name, as if they were relatives or friends.

Bradbury imagined a democratic society whose diverse population turns against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom’s Cabin and blacks disapprove of Little Black Sambo. He imagined not just political correctness, but a society so diverse that all groups were ?minorities.? He wrote that at first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly anyone read. Only after people stopped reading did the state employ firemen to burn books.

In an era where more people watch American Idol than read a daily newspaper, and television “news” itself is a vast wasteland, it’s hard to argue against Bradbury’s hypothesis.

Photo via The New York Times

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. WR says:

    Apparently, Doug has never heard of the intentional fallacy.

  2. In an era where more people watch American Idol than read a daily newspaper, and television “news” itself is a vast wasteland, it’s hard to argue against Bradbury’s hypothesis.

    Which is more intellectually stimulating? The Wire or Twilight?

  3. ernieyeball says:

    In an era where more people watch American Idol than read a daily newspaper…

    I’ve never seen “Idol”. My TV doesn’t get any channels. I used to pick up the local Daily Rag till it went up to 75 cents and I started living on a fixed income. I do check out Rag’s website on a regular basis, am I “reading the daily paper?”
    By the way, just saw Homer choke Bart again…Marge was laughing and the baby was driving the car…

  4. CB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    the wire is definitely an outlier, though. very few shows have ever come close to the heart, and intelligence, that david simon poured into that masterpiece.

  5. @CB:

    There’s lots of other good shows on TV and lots of crappy novels. Bradbury was focussing to much on the delivery media rather than the actual content involved.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    I think it’s easy to sit here and nod along with him, but…

    Who was it that said 90% of everything is crap? This is likely true across eras. We notice our present-day crap more, for obvious reasons.

    Make no mistake, it IS crap, and it often pisses me off. But somehow I doubt the average pre-TV American was actually more intellectual.

  7. CB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Bradbury was focussing to much on the delivery media rather than the actual content involved.

    an excellent point, which could use a post of its own. i still dont think the proportion of quality to garbage is terribly flattering though.

  8. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @CB: It never is. The problem that future generations have is that libraries and museums only keep the quality (or what society says is quality). The crap dies an uneventful death. Future generations neither see most of it, nor know how much there was.

    It’s not like is was in the old days, and it wasn’t like that then, either.

  9. Terry says:

    Hi Mr. Mataconis

    Please resue my comment, it was tagged as spam, but it is not spam.

    Thanks!

    Terry

  10. mattb says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker beat me to it. If you look at contemporary commentary in just about any period of history, you’ll see people decrying the popular media of the day as dumbing down the population.

    Up until the advent of the Digital Age, the big difference is that bad stuff was never archived. Further, as it was more difficult to publish, there was less work circulating. But I would still guess that the general ratio of crap to gold has been pretty consistent.

    It’s also important to understand media shifts

  11. TerryS says:

    “Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.”

    Considering that Americans spend, on average, about half of all their leisure time watching TV, it would make sense that reading (and other activities) would be crowded out.

    Sure there is probably just as much written crap as broadcast crap. But even if you are reading crap, you are still giving your mind practice in an essential skill of reading.

    Kids used to spend their pocket money on comic books. Comic books may or may not be crap, but they give kids and adults hours and hours of practice in reading. The comic book industry was decimated once TV came on the scene. It is no wonder that a huge percentage of kids are not reading at grade level. And it is no wonder that so many adults are poor readers.

    The result is a dumbed down populace.