Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fahrenheit 451 -- A True Dystopian

This is not the first time I've read Fahrenheit 451, but it has been, oh, about 30 years, and you can forget a lot in 30 years. I had. In fact, I had forgotten what a wonderful book it is and, actually, how relevant it remains, now, 60 years later. It's also amazing to see all of the foresight Bradbury had into the world that would be, which is now the world that is. [It was not amazing to see how much of Fahrenheit made it into Snow Crash and not in a good way. Not in an homage way. In a "I really like this and am going to take it and use it in my book" way. Like the mechanical dog. I didn't think it was possible for my view of Snow Crash to fall any farther than it already was, but Stephenson surprised me yet again. Not in a good way.]

The thing that stood out to me most is the true nature of the dystopian world of the Firemen. I'm not a fan of dystopians, but that's because I'm not a fan of current dystopians, which are not dystopians at all. Almost across the board, they are post-apocalyptic. The Hunger Games is not a dystopian story; I don't care how it's marketed or what publishers say or whatever. [And the distinction and where it went wrong is a post unto itself, so I'm not going to go into that now.] But Fahrenheit is in no way post-apocalyptic (although you could say it's pre-apocalyptic, I suppose). It's not even a government imposed dystopian. No, the Firemen and the book burning is something that came from the people, and that's what makes the book so scary.

And, possibly, real.

There are so many things in our current society that Bradbury was only glimpsing when he wrote the book, but they are so much worse, now, than then. I'll focus on two things:

1. We don't like to make people feel bad. About anything. This has been a growing trend over the past few decades with our movement toward positive thinking and making everything "politically correct," but it doesn't stop there, because we've started to stop allowing kids to experience losing. Losing feels bad. Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend in kids' sport teams (like my daughter's old softball team) to not have any losers. No scores. Just two teams of kids who are all winners. And many schools have begun adopting grade-less systems, because bad grades make kids feel bad.

In Fahrenheit, one of the reasons that people don't read is that reading makes them feel bad. As a society, the people want to have fun, and they can't get that through reading.

2. Thinking is hard work. And it makes people feel bad. If they read, they will think. If they think, they will realize just how not very special they are and how much they don't have and that makes them sad. Thinking about anything for too long becomes a bad thing; it's thinking they're really trying to get rid of, not the books. And I'm not talking about the government; I'm talking about the society. Books get shorter and shorter because no one wants to think (and we all know about the current TL;DR crap). Eventually, books become anathema to the society, so they start burning them. They burn them until it becomes a law.

I was looking over a survey recently dealing with people and whether they like to have "intellectual conversations" and 80-90% of people responding say no. I think the numbers where slightly higher for women, but that could be cultural (men want to appear smarter and women want to appear less smart than men). The most common response to the question was, "I don't like to think that hard."

That Bradbury was tackling these topics back in '53 (actually earlier, because Fahrenheit was based off of a short story he wrote in the 40s called "The Fireman") says a lot. It says that we've been struggling over the loss of books in our society for much longer than we normally think. It also says that, although these issues have grown in the decades, books, even if not physical, are still a strong force in our society, and that's a good thing. Of course, the metaphor that Bradbury is making is that the loss of books, the loss of knowledge, the loss of thought will lead man to his doom (a fiery apocalyptic doom in Fahrenheit), and I don't think that he was wrong. His warning is still as applicable today as it was then, just before the greatest wave of censorship the United States has ever seen would was across the country (something the Tea Party would like duplicate, I'm sure).

All of that aside, the language of Bradbury is superb, his language exquisite. Things like, "...under an ancient windmill that whirred like the sound of the passing years overhead." I can hear that sound in my head when I read it, and it gives the passage a weight that just isn't found in a lot of modern books. And my favorite passage:
She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darkness, but moving also toward a new sun.
It's full of foreshadowing and beauty. Very evocative. And the book is full of that stuff.

There's a reason this book is considered a classic, but many books that are no longer relevant are classics. This one surpasses those in that it is a classic and still relevant. I'm quite sure this is a book that more people should still be reading.


  1. People don't need to think anymore - that's what the Internet is for, right?
    That many people don't like intellectual conversations? That is a really scary thought.
    That first point about not losing annoys me. A high school game last Friday resulted in a 99-0 score and a parent on the losing team filed a complaint of bullying. Really? Hey, they lost! Get over it. In real life, people lose. If we wonder why young adults struggle with so many issues, it's because they're not prepared for reality.

  2. Really enjoyed this post Andrew. A great critical reading of one of my favorite books from middle school.

    I'd heard about the no losers mentality, and grade-less systems. It's a weird thing for me to consider and accept as 'reality'.

  3. It's always scary when they bring up surveys saying things like some people haven't read an actual book since high school, if even then. And then we wonder why we're falling behind the rest of the world.

  4. I have never read the book, but my 13 year old is reading it right now as required reading for this 9 week marking period. He absolutely hates it and I must crack the whip every night to get him to open that book. He loves reading, but for some reason can not find any enjoyment in this particular book. We are down to the wire to get it finished and do a report. Wish us luck!

  5. Yeah, it's such a great book. I read it about four years ago and was awed by its accuracy about current society. Had a big influence on the stuff I'm writing now.

  6. People don't like to think, especially 'bad thoughts,' because they're ill equipped to handle their own emotions anymore. You can thank things like the smartphone for that.

    Louis C.K. had a great bit about this that I think is 100% true, on why we can no longer handle our own sadness thanks to the smartphone. It takes a little while to get there, but it's worth it.

  7. What is a common complaint these days? ('don't make me think'). That follows with 'why should I when my devices can do that for me?' The brain is like a lot of other things, non-use fosters a lazy brain. What happens when that device doesn't work?

    Fahrenheit 451 was a warning. It still applies today. Will all physical books eventually disappear and only live in the e-world? Possibly or they might reside in museums under glass. That may be ok as long as the e-world is accessible. In other words, no disasters knock out our connections.

    I'd keep my moldering books, too.

  8. It's scary how gentle we've become as a society and wonder why are kids aren't prepared for the business world once they're out of school. I love the book 1984. Another great classic.

  9. I haven't read it since high school but I think of it whenever the subject of book banning comes up. I think your analysis of the text and its relevance to the present day is spot on.

  10. Alex: The thing is, though, I don't think people are less prone to think these days than they used to be. Emerson was complaining about the lack of thought in people over 100 years ago. The Internet just lets us see it in a brighter light.

    Alex: Yeah, I know. I don't even know how to address it, because parents think they're protecting their kids but, really, they're just damaging them.

    GP: My brother has never read an entire book. Ever. Neither has my dad.

    JKIR,F!: It would be interesting to see if he still hated it if it wasn't an assignment. For some reason, kids always decide to hate the books that are required.

    L.G.: Bradbury was pretty amazing. I'm really wanting to just go back through all of his stuff, right now, even though I don't really have time to do that.

    ABftS: That video is great. Another reason I don't have one of those things.

    D.G.: Unfortunately, the brain quits working long before the device.

    Elsie: I've read 1984 a few times, but it's also been a long time since the last time I read it.

  11. TAS: There's a funny thing at the back of the 50th anniversary edition where Bradbury is talking about how one of the publishers censored his book about censorship. heh

  12. It's been a long day, and I'm on my kindle, so I'll be brief.

    You are absolutely right.

    Also, that description of the face is beautiful because of what it tells you about how the face makes you feel. Both clocks and people have faces, but rarely if ever would both evoke the same feeling of fleeting time.

  13. I think what happens is people confuse not correcting people or scoring or doing anything that might offend them with just plain not being a jerk. But it's easier to just not be offensive in anyway, plus heaven forbid anyone think about CHANGING THINGS (insert scary music). Which pretty much goes to your second point.

  14. Briane: It's such a great passage and almost sums up the whole book on top of just being beautiful.

    Jeanne: People confuse all sorts of things, mostly because they don't think about them.

  15. Yup. Brave New World, too. It's funny when books about suppression are themselves suppressed - funny, as in terrifying.

  16. Great subject! I need to read this book again since it's probably been 30 years or so since I read it. I saw a movie version, but I don't remember it. I don't think the movie was very good, but I'm not sure.

    I've been thinking a lot lately how people don't like to think. You and I have had some exchange about this. Just this morning I started developing a post in my head related to this topic. Alex is right about the internet. I get so frustrated when I write a blog post that I want people to think about and then they leave a comment that tells me they just skimmed through and ended up missing my point. But you know what I'm saying.

    Too bad about the decline of "intellectual conversation" but it's true. People are afraid of getting into arguments. That's what happens when cool reasoning gets left out and emotion runs the dialogue exchange. Too much emotion, not enough thinking.

    Check out my interview with viral blogger Liza Long
    Tossing It Out

  17. A strong review for a classic read. I re-read Fahrenheit 451 last year and it held up through the lens of time for sure.
    I must read more about the definition of a dystopian story because I have lumped The HG in that group for sure, and perhaps erroneously.

  18. TAS: I still need to read that one.
    And, yeah, funny as in terrifying.

    Lee: I was reading something about the movie version (which I have see a long time ago) and Bradbury was talking about how they made the ending not quite so bad in the movie because they thought it was too depressing.

    You (and I) should look back at those posts I did on thinking a while back.

    Kerry: The main thing about a dystopia (and I probably should just do a post on it) is that it is a false utopia. It has the gloss of a utopia, but there is something rotten at its core. The only thing like that in HG is the Capitol. The civilization as a whole is in no way a utopian. It is in fact a harsh society, and there is no attempt to cover that up.

  19. A long time since I read Fahrenheit either. I used to love Ray Bradbury.

    With the amount of new books coming out every day, it doesn't seem to me that we will end up that way. But things change.

    A goalless game - people really do do stupid things.

  20. Jo: I would almost agree with that except that there is a decided push to make books, everything really, shorter and shorter. The interesting thing is that that's how Bradbury presented the beginnings of the anti-book stuff in Fahrenheit.

  21. Here it is! Great review. It's been a long time since I read it so this helped me remember some of the content.

  22. Michael: I was surprised at how much of it I'd forgotten. Glad I could help.