Another One Bites The Dust

30 Nov

I suppose I should take this as an omen. Ray Bradbury, the man who once said that e-books “smell like burned fuel” and that the Internet is nothing but “a big distraction,” has officially signed off on an e-book release of Fahrenheit 451, my hands-down favorite book of all time.

In a bit of irony, e-book Fahrenheit 451 is $9.99, whereas you can now come across a paperback version for a few dollars less. But the implication is obvious: Even 91-year-old technology-resistant Luddites are accepting this whole digital book thing. (Exception: My 85-year-old grandfather, who wouldn’t know a Kindle it if hit him in the face and seems content to subsist on an ancient DVD player and his collection of John Wayne movies.)

The greatest irony of e-Fahrenheit is its relationship to the book’s plot. As a refresher, Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian society in which new media has led to a decline in reading. Citizens now celebrate the simplification of ideas—”If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none”—and shun the kind of nuance one finds in books, which are now so reviled that they’ve been banned, and are burned when found. It’s also a world where people define their social status in part by the number of television screens they have—the ideal is a room in which one is surrounded by four screens and can experience TV in 360 degrees. Neither of these visions has come true since Fahrenheit’s 1953 release, but is the latter even that hard to imagine?

In any case, although Fahrenheit 451 is of the same ilk as 1984 and Brave New World, it’s also an ode to knowledge through reading. As protagonist Guy Montag (no relation to Heidi) starts to think about the volumes he’s been so dutifully burning, he encounters people who highlight for him the value of intelligence. At one point in Fahrenheit 451 (spoiler alert) Montag even meets a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to commit books to memory, simply so that they might not be lost to future generations.

While I’m personally fond of Bradbury’s technology reticence, I have to admit that the society he envisions in Fahrenheit 451 works whether books are made of paper or plastic. Although the authorities handle the enforcement of the reading ban, the ban itself was not their creation: “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.” … “With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” …. “Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord. ”

Ultimately, it’s these things—critical thinking, intellectual discussion, an appreciation for art—that books provide, and it’s these same things that the authorities in Fahrenheit 451, and really the public at large, are trying to subvert. Which is important. If the novel took place in a world of e-readers, would people be any less intent on burning them? Probably not (excluding for the time being the logistical issues with setting fire to piles of electronics). Because its not about paper and ink so much as thought. Books, as Bradbury writes, “are there to remind us what assess and fools we are.” All that really matters is that we keep getting reminded.

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