I spent the month of April engaged in writing poetry every day, so as a reward and a respite I spent most of May reading. One of the books I read was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
For me, this novel is like Moby Dick— I have not read that book, but like a lot of folks, I basically know what it is about. I already knew the basic plot of F-451: In some future dystopian society, books were considered subversive and detrimental to the well-being of society, and certain people, called Firemen, routinely burned books whenever they were found. The protagonist of the novel, a fireman named Guy Montag, has an epiphany when he actually reads a book. Books make you think, he discovers, and he becomes quite disturbed about this. And this novel became quite disturbing to me.
Since F-451 was selected as my women’s book group current read, plus the fact that I have an autographed copy of the novel, I figured I better get it read.
Like many of us, I too am one of those readers who tends to think a book is “good” if I enjoyed it; and conversely if I did not enjoy it, then there is something wrong with the work. After reading this novel, I have come to the conclusion that I could not apply such a judgment on it.
F-451 is a wonderfully crafted work that I thoroughly did NOT enjoy. The book is good because it achieves its purpose, and because of that I do not like it.
Bradbury is a master craftsman of the written word. His prose reads like poetry– beautifully chosen words that pithily convey the story (the book is less than 200 pages). His words are prophetic: if we lose books, then ideas cease to be exchanged, we stop thinking, we become brain-dead, and then our society finally succumbs.
The novel was published in the 1950’s, during the McCarthy era, when freedom of expression came under fire. However, Bradbury commented over the years that F-451 was not about government censorship of ideas. Rather it is about what happens when we become so addicted to other forms of entertainment that we forget how to engage in the thinking process that reading books compels us to do. This novel is chillingly prophetic. Montag’s wife and her friends become so involved in watching their reality shows on their wall-to-wall televisions that the characters in these shows become actual family members to them. As a result, she emotionally disengages from her real-life husband for them.
In an LA Weekly article written in 2007, author Amy E. Boyle Johnston states, “[Bradbury] 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.” (Johnston, 2007 )
I wonder if Bradbury, before he passed 2012, saw the parallels in the evolution of our current technology: giant flat screens televisions streaming reality shows, interactive gaming, and endless forms of social media. How many times have you seen couples and families together in public each engaged with their own separate mobile devices? All this technology is intended to connect us, yet it is driving us all apart and “dumbing” us down to abysmal levels.
So this brings me back to my initial statement that some of us (including me) label a book as “good” only if it entertains us in the way that our devices, apps, and visual programming entertains us, and it is “bad” if its ideas challenge us to confront uncomfortable realities. I am not saying one should not enjoy a book, just don’t let that be the only criterion for judging it. Ask yourself if it makes you think. Have we become like Montag’s wife who is horrified when she discovers her husband has read a book? She ultimately turns against her husband because her fantasy world is threatened when he forces her to confront reality.
Are we headed that way too? In a horrifying moment of clarity, I am forced to think that Bradbury’s prophecy may be coming true for us.